John Schaaf: Ky.'s legislative ethics code strong and working

October 1, 2012 

John Schaaf is counsel to the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission in Frankfort.

  • At issue: Sept. 18 Herald-Leader editorial: "Keep legislators out of merit hiring; ethics commission must draw line"

It's always a good time to let Kentuckians know that our state's legislative ethics law is working, and Kentucky is avoiding the kinds of investigations and scandals that occur regularly in other states.

The Herald-Leader recently editorialized that Kentucky legislators should not be allowed to support constituents who are seeking state employment.

I'm happy to report the ethics law addresses that very issue and specifically prohibits legislators from acting "contrary to the public interest" in trying to influence state hiring.

For example, let's say Chris, Lou and Pat apply for a state merit system job in the Transportation Cabinet, but only Lou and Pat meet the merit system's education or experience requirements for the position.

It would be a violation of the ethics law for a legislator to contact the cabinet to ask the agency to ignore the merit law and give the job to Chris. That's because the public interest demands that state officials follow the law, so a legislator is prohibited from asking an official to do otherwise.

On the other hand, if Chris, Lou and Pat are all qualified, each of them may ask a legislator, a minister, a teacher, former employer or any other person to recommend them for state employment.

Of course, the ethics law prohibits a legislator from recommending a family member for a state job or threatening any sort of legislative reprisal against the hiring official or agency.

In making the final hiring decision, a hiring official may consider the recommendations, but a legislator has not violated a law or misused his or her official position by recommending someone who is legally qualified for a job.

Kentucky's Code of Legislative Ethics is one of the most comprehensive ethics laws in the nation, and it clearly regulates legislators' interaction with state agencies while recognizing that a key part of every legislator's job is working for constituents who need a response or assistance from state government.

Millions of Kentuckians don't live in or near Frankfort, and they might not have the time or money to figure out who they should contact to get a road repaired, report an incident of suspected elder abuse or get a commercial license to apply pesticides.

However, every Kentuckian does have a senator and a representative, and in most parts of the state, these two individuals are the most accessible contacts citizens have with state government. The ethics law helps legislators work effectively for constituents while assuring the public interest is respected.

Legislators are strictly prohibited from threatening legislative reprisal against a state agency in an effort to influence the agency's actions. Legislators are prohibited from representing clients or negotiating with state agencies on a wide array of issues, including contracts, property sales or purchases; obtaining grants, loans, licenses or permits; and any proceeding before the Public Service Commission.

A legislator cannot hold a contract with a state agency unless the contract is let after public notice and competitive bidding, and a legislator cannot lease or sell property to a state agency.

The ethics law also includes a nepotism provision that prohibits legislators from advocating for the hiring, promotion or transfer of a member of the legislator's family to a state job, and prohibits legislators from participating in disciplinary actions involving family members in state employment.

These strict provisions and the entire legislative ethics law have helped Kentucky's General Assembly stay free of indictments and convictions since 1993, when the ethics law was enacted.

That's worth noting, particularly when Florida, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania have in recent months seen legislators charged, convicted, expelled from office and imprisoned for a variety of state and federal felonies and misdemeanors — ranging from bribery to theft, forgery and using public resources for political purposes.

In our country, there are people who wrongly believe that all legislators and other public officials are dishonest, and became dishonest on the day they were elected or appointed. Many of those people spend far more time writing comments on Web sites than they do talking with their own legislators.

The best way to answer that mischaracterization is for Kentucky's citizen legislators to represent their constituents effectively and stay within the guidelines of the nation's strongest ethics law.

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