Now that Civil Beat has knocked down its paywall, I’ll point you over there today to CB for my weekly column (“Ian Lind: Ominous Court Rulings For The State Ethics Commission“).
I started out just trying to digest the court ruling that overturned the State Ethics Commission’s “guidelines” prohibiting traditionally organized educational trips for public school students because it believes the free travel offered to teacher-chaperones is a prohibited “gift” under the state ethics law.
I’ve tried to explain a bit of the background in the column, so do head over to Civil Beat and give it a read.
Thinking about it some more, I’ve come around to the opinion that the commission has overreached in its to make it easier for people to comply with the ethics code by spelling out more “bright lines” between allowed and prohibited acts.
But this has involved manufacturing bright line boundaries for a statute where there is little in the way of clear Black and White, and much more a subjective set of grays.
It seems to me that in the past, the commission’s advice on educational travel might have been nuanced and somewhat “wishy-washy”, and would have been something like this.
They might have explained that the gift provision of the law prohibits gifts intended to influence or reward state officials or employees for their official actions. And the “fair treatment” provision prohibited state officials or employees from using their official position to reap unwarranted rewards.
Then the commission might have reviewed its decisions in past specific cases. For example, they might have pointed to a rare circumstance in which a teacher’s family owned a travel agency, and benefited unfairly when school trips were routed via the family company. Or perhaps they would have referenced a past case in which parents complained that a teacher pressured students to sign up for the trip so that another free trip would be available for a favored teacher.
And the commission might then have warned teachers to be careful to avoid even appearing to put pressure on students and their parents, and to stay clear of any business involvement in the travel arrangements beyond the flights and hotels received in exchange for organizing and chaperoning. And the commission would have advised anyone with questions or concerns to contact the commission for further guidance.
Instead, the commission tried to reduce the gift and fair treatment provisions to a simple “no free travel under these circumstances” rule written into their guidelines.
Now a circuit court judge had overturned the travel guidelines and ordering the commission to go through rule making if it wants to come up with a bright line solution.
My column notes that this forced reconsideration is likely to involve more than school travel, as the same gift provisions have been relied on to prohibit legislators from receiving complimentary tickets to attend community or nonprofit events with a face value of more than $25. Legislators unhappy about the commission’s restrictions on them are likely to be more than happy to piggyback their grievances on top of the teachers’ arguments.
And then there’s the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. It’s like a “Citizens United” decision in the area of public ethics and corruption.
Check the column for my initial thoughts. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the court’s decision.
A teaser…from the blog, Ethos:
“We in government ethics talk all the time about officials not even giving the appearance of a conflict of interest. As in most human endeavors, we find that noble principles are best supported by a few punitive laws or rules for those who do not “see the light.” Over two centuries, Federal conflict-of-interest laws and ethics rules have punished appearances of corruption because of the overarching need in a government based on popular sovereignty for the citizenry to trust in the integrity of its governing officials. Sadly, the Court has said that appearances/ethics are in the eye of the beholder.