By Louisa Warren, NC Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform
North Carolina lawmakers deserve great praise for passing a substantial lobbying and ethics reform package last year that will truly help change the pay-to-play culture that ruled in the General Assembly. But unfortunately there’s a fundamental flaw to the legislation that threatens to stain their good work and further erode public confidence.
When lawmakers created an Independent Ethics Commission last summer that now holds sway over all there branches of government, they managed to close the ethics proceedings to the public. That means that any ethics hearings and punishments given to executive branch employees or legislators will be kept secret. That means that the public may never know if a public official has committed an ethics violation. That means that legislation that was supposed to make government function more honestly and fairly actually sanctions closed-door maneuverings.
It’s enough that recent scandals, all of which occurred behind closed-doors (and in some cases, behind closed bathroom doors), have worn down already-apathetic voters. But it’s even sadder that ethics reform is tainted by secrecy.
It’s Not a New Idea
Opening up the ethics commission proceedings is not a far-fetched idea. Nearly all of North Carolina’s southern neighbors conduct their ethics hearings out in the open. It’s what our very own executive branch has done for the last 30 years under an old directive known as Executive Order No. 1. And it’s certainly not a new idea in the General Assembly.
Two bills passed by the State House last May, with near unanimous approval, called for both the Legislative Ethics Committee and the State Ethics Commission to hold open hearings. Ninety two current members of the state House voted for the Legislative Ethics Committee hearings to be open (HB 1843). Even more current House members, ninety eight, voted in favor of open State Ethics Commission hearings (HB 1844).
Two State Senate bills (SB 1976 and SB 1694) proposed last May also called for open Ethics Commission hearings. Both bills, while never voted on in committee, were sponsored by a combined thirty one out of fifty State Senate members. Twenty eight of those Senators are current members.
If you glossed over the numbers, the point is that there was overwhelming support in both the House and Senate (and recorded votes) for open ethics hearings for both the Legislative Ethics Committee and the State Ethics Commission last summer. The Governor even weighed in and supported openness in a May 2006 press conference. So the problem isn’t (or at least it wasn’t) that public officials vehemently oppose open ethics proceedings.
Dispelling the Dirty Laundry Myth
Or is it? This year, it seems that legislators are singing a different tune. They’re worried that open ethics hearings means that a slew of unsubstantiated complaints will reach the public too quickly and ruin good reputations.
But there’s a whole process for weeding out bunk complaints. It’s called, “determining probable cause” and it means that before any hearings or proceedings are conducted in the open, the State Ethics Commission conducts a preliminary investigation to see whether the ethics complaint has merit. If it doesn’t, then the complaint gets thrown out.
So, unless the dirty laundry is legitimately stained with transgressions against public trust, it doesn’t get aired. With open ethics hearings, reputations won’t get ruined unless, well, they deserve to.
One Little Change Can Speak Volumes
Maybe asking for open ethics hearings seems like small-change but the reality is that if public servants aren’t held accountable to the public, there isn’t going to be any change. The lack of public confidence in public officials will remain where it is—disturbingly low.
It’s time restore the credibility of our government and lawmakers should rise above the clouds hovering over the General Assembly and open back up the ethics proceedings. Secrecy has no place in reform.
Louisa Warren is the Director of the NC Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform