Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ethics panel could use more sunshine

Last week’s decision by the House Ethics Committee recommending expulsion of Rep. Thomas Wright, D-New Hanover, briefly focused light on what happened to an ethics complaint filed with the Legislative Ethics Committee, a different, joint House-Senate committee, by former Sen. Fern Shubert, R-Union, against Rep. Pryor Gibson, D-Anson. The complaint was filed in 2007 after Gibson had signed a House document in an earlier session certifying that a bill he sponsored involving extraterritorial jurisdiction and meals taxes was non-controversial and had the support of local legislators. It didn’t, and Shubert believed his signing the document was unethical.
But until Wright’s lawyers protested that the House was following a double standard with racial overtones in pursuing an ethics complaint against Wright and not against Gibson, the public didn’t know what happened to that complaint. The House doesn’t make complaints public unless and until it proceeds to a hearing – one of the flaws in the system, I think, because the public cannot find out why ethics officials haven’t done anything – or even whether they’ve done anything, including dismissals.
In this case, Gibson waived the confidentiality last week and committee chair Rick Glazier revealed that the complaint against Gibson had been dismissed by the Joint Ethics Committee last July because, he said, it was not an ethical violation at the time and the ethics committee didn’t have jurisdiction over something that happened in an earlier session.
Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, passes along a copy of the disposition. Click here to take a look.
As a document signed by Glazier and Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, last July 12 makes clear, certifying that a bill is locally non-controversial when it isn’t will be subject to ethics committee jurisdiction in the future.
John Blust followed up with a note: “I think the House still needs to deal with this matter effectively. Maybe the Legislative Ethics Committee set up by the 2006 reform doesn’t technically have jurisdiction of the Gibson Complaint - they did not have jurisdiction over Wright either and passed it on to the House Ethics Committee. I wonder why the Joint Committee did not pass on the Gibson matter too, rather than dismissing it. I don’t know whether the complainant in Wright (Sinsheimer) specifically requested the House Ethics Committee rather than the Legislative Ethics Committee investigate Wright. If the Legislative Ethics Committee did this on its own in the Wright matter, then why did it not do the same in the Gibson matter?
“It seems to me that filing a false certification with the House clerk has to be an ethics violation of some sort and perhaps a new complainant - maybe one of the Union County residents affected by the Gibson bill will file a new complaint with just the House Ethics Committee. I feel this must be dealt with if the House is to have any credibility.”
Blust added in another note:
“I left out one more point. The Gibson matter is a clear-cut example of why the State Ethics Commission should have jurisdiction over complaints against legislators, at least through the stage of recommending a punishment, and why the process should be totally open. The entire reform community has been unanimous, I believe, in backing these changes.”
I think he's right about this. While legislators may have been motivated by a concern that there would be bogus ethics complaints filed and there's no reason to make those public, the risk is that the legislature will be seen as ignoring complaints with merit to them, or worse, covering up for cronies. There's a lot to be said for allowing the public to see what's going on, and to make up their own minds.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

You might be right that the specific allegations against Wright occurred in previous sessions.
But the one thing that happened during the current session was the indictment of Rep. Wright.
I suppose, strictly speaking, one committee or another could have said well the criminal indictment covers actions in a previous session, so we are prevented from acting.
While seemingly procedurally valid, this would not have been in the best interest of the legislature politically.
But I don't think the Republicans want Wright treated as Gibson was.
They want Gibson treated as Wright was.
But a question:
-- What stopped Blust from taking a "question of privilege" -- as that motion is truly intended -- and alerted his colleagues, and the candid world, to what he felt was a miscarriage by the ethics committee? Or, printing up handbills, or getting a billboard, or calling a press conference, or sending a few emails, or getting a bell and walking Fayetteville Street as a town-crier of injustice?

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