There's good news and bad news in the world of legislative ethics.
The good news for Kentuckians is that no member of the Kentucky General Assembly has been indicted or convicted by a state or federal criminal law enforcement agency for misusing his or her legislative office since the end of the BOPTROT scandal in the early 1990s.
The bad news for Americans is that legislators from neighboring Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and many other states are still being investigated, indicted on and convicted of state and federal crimes. In fact, a couple of once-powerful legislators are serving time in federal prisons here in Kentucky.
Former Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi is serving eight years at the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, and former Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Fumo is serving five years at the Federal Correctional Institution near Ashland.
DiMasi was convicted of steering millions of dollars in state contracts to a software company and secretly profiting from the scheme. Fumo was convicted of using his Senate aides as personal servants and political operatives, defrauding a Philadelphia civic group and staging a cover-up to try to thwart the FBI.
In recent years, dozens of legislators from at least 17 states have been convicted in state or federal court of public corruption charges.
The roll call includes Alabama (three convicted, three on trial now), Alaska (six convicted), California, Florida (three convicted), Maryland, Massachusetts (five convicted, including three consecutive House speakers); Missouri (two convicted), New Jersey (three convicted), New York (six convicted, two awaiting trial), North Carolina (three convicted), Oregon, Pennsylvania (nine convicted), Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Most of these cases also resulted in convictions of local officials, lobbyists, business executives or legislative staff and other state officials.
In Tennessee, a former state senator is still in prison as a result of Operation Tennessee Waltz, a state-federal sting operation resulting in the conviction of five legislators, three county officials and a lobbyist.
Kentuckians will always have disagreements about bills that pass or fail in the General Assembly, but we should all recognize that our legislators have worked consistently within ethical guidelines, unlike many public officials in other states.
Credit for Kentucky's commendable record should go to citizens who demanded and received a tough and effective Code of Legislative Ethics, oversight by an independent Legislative Ethics Commission and compliance by hundreds of Kentucky legislators, staff and lobbyists.
In 1993, in the wake of the BOPTROT scandal, the legislature approved a sweeping ethics reform package that includes provisions to:
Prohibit lobbyists from making campaign contributions to legislative candidates.
Require the registration of lobbyists and their employers, as well as detailed reports on lobbyists' and employers' expenditures and actions.
Limit the amount of food and beverages lawmakers can receive from lobbyists and prohibit most gifts.
Prohibit lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for two years after serving in the General Assembly.
Require more detailed financial disclosures from lawmakers to reveal possible conflicts of interest.
Establish the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, made up of citizens who are not legislators, to enforce the ethics rules.
The ethics reforms prompted by BOPTROT are among the strongest in the nation and have been credited with changing the political culture in Kentucky's Capitol. This year, the ethics commission has recommended several changes in the ethics law, including prohibiting campaign contributions from PACs and employers of lobbyists during legislative sessions.
When once-powerful lobbyist Jack Abramoff recently spoke to Kentucky's legislators at an ethics education session, he advocated extensive reforms in the ethics laws relating to Congress and state legislatures.
Abramoff spent more than three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges relating to corrupt lobbying, and he's now working to change "the culture of staggering corruption and rampant greed corroding America's political system."
Abramoff said that when he was a lobbyist, he gave "millions and millions of dollars" of his clients' money to members of Congress as campaign contributions so he and his clients would get greater access to members. One of the reforms Abramoff recommends is to prohibit campaign contributions from lobbyists (as Kentucky does), and from lobbyists' employers and anybody else who has or wants contracts or other financial benefits from government.
Big money's influence on politics and government is growing, but this is an excellent opportunity for our state to consider how to keep the playing field a bit more level. Kentucky should continue its leadership in the ethics arena.