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Ian Lind • Online daily from Kaaawa, Hawaii

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Ethics in the news

February 15th, 2012 · No Comments

Here’s another quick look at ethics issues that have come up in other parts of the country.

In Missouri, the state supreme court struck down reforms implemented by the legislature two years ago on procedural grounds, leaving campaign disclosure and ethics enforcement in trouble.

The Missouri Ethics Commission lost some of its investigatory powers Tuesday and the public lost access to some campaign finance reports when the state Supreme Court invalidated a 2010 ethics law because of the way it was passed by lawmakers.

The high court’s decision means candidates for the Legislature and statewide offices will no longer have to publicly report contributions of $500 or more within 48 hours of receiving them, while the Legislature is in session. The decision also revokes a ban on certain committee-to-committee money transfers that had been intended to make it easier for the public to track the original source of contributions.

The court held that the 2010 law violated a constitutional ban on amending a bill in a way that changed its original purpose.

Gifts to public officials, which have been an issue locally, recently hit the news in Baltimore, Maryland, where city officials have been on the receiving end of gifts from businesses and nonprofit groups.

The Baltimore Sun reports:

Baltimore’s lawmakers often receive tickets for shows and other popular events from developers, business people, corporations and nonprofits as one of the perks of office. Over three years, elected officials in City Hall reported getting more than 170 tickets worth more than $15,000, according to the most recent filings available.

City Hall has strengthened ethics laws after Mayor Sheila Dixon pleaded guilty to perjury charges two years ago and agreed to resign after failing to disclose gifts from a developer boyfriend. Still, lawmakers are allowed to accept gifts under certain circumstances, so long as they are annually divulged on publicly available forms.

But the law that governs such gifts is complex, and City Hall officials have different views of what they can legally accept and what they should report on their ethics forms, a Baltimore Sun investigation found.

Moreover, the disclosure forms are rarely reviewed by the office that collects them. There has not been a comprehensive review of the forms in at least eight years, according to the former chairwoman of the city’s ethics board.

“The whole thing is a dysfunctional system,” said Fred Guy, director of the University of Baltimore’s Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics, who also has advised Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s staff. “The whole thing is ineffectual and not taken seriously.”

A Sun editorial then suggested three specific changes to their ethics law that would mark policy advances, including an online filing system for gift and financial disclosures that would eliminate the costly process of scanning paper forms. There’s an idea that should be adopted here at home.

The Orlando Sentinal reports that an ethics reform bill targeting conflicts of interest died in the Florida legislature, with lawmakers rejecting it as “a media-driven reaction to a non-problem.”

A brief report in the Raleigh News & Observer blamed secrecy surrounding complaints filed with the state ethics commission for a lack of accountability.

The commission investigates complaints made against public board appointees, lobbyists, elected officials and others under the State Government Ethics Act, approved by state lawmakers in 2006.

But the state law includes broad provisions that hide many of the commission’s actions from public view.

In particular, it prohibits the commission from publicly disclosing the details of all complaints, making it impossible for the public to assess the merits of the case and resolution.

The statistics show that two complaints involved possible lobbying law violations, with two more carried forward from the previous year.

[emphasis added]

Once again, it sounds a lot like Hawaii, where complaints are generally required to remain confidential.

In Atlanta, the Journal-Constitution reports budget cuts have curtailed enforcement activities of Georgia’s state ethics commission.

A coalition of watchdog groups said Friday cuts to the state ethics commission’s budget have hobbled the agency and resulted in a backlog of unresolved complaints.

“This agency has basically been crippled and is literally in a crisis of ethics because their budget has been so cut, they are so understaffed and underfunded that they have not been able to do the job that is laid out for them by law,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a member of the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform.

Since 2008, the commission’s budget has been sliced by 42 percent, leaving the office with a fraction of its staff and making “a joke” of its mandate to enforce ethics rules, he said.

Finally, for more general reading on ethics issues, check out the Conflict of Interest blog(conflictofinterest.com), and another called, simply enough, Ethics Alarms.

Tags: Court · Ethics · Politics

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