Herald-Leader Editorial

Need action, not talk, on ethics

April 20, 2014 

There was an awful lot of talk about legislative ethics in the session just ended. In the end, though, it resulted in little action.

An uproar over the failure of the Legislative Ethics Commission to discipline former Rep. John Arnold, a Democrat, over well-documented allegations of sexual and verbal harassment, moved the Democratic House to pass a bill making some changes in the commission.

But the Republican Senate, perhaps enjoying the Democrats' suffering, failed to vote on the measure.

The whole fiasco devalued and disrespected the three female legislative staffers who came forward to tell their stories about Arnold's groping and leering. Even before the commission's dismissal, legislative leaders and a House committee appointed to look into the charges had essentially looked the other way.

This has got to change.

Leaders from both parties and houses need to stop their public efforts to own the moral high ground and get serious about crafting legislation to restore credibility to the commission.

There are several changes that could help the commission.

■ Improve the appointment process. Now, the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House each appoint four members and must agree on the ninth, a spot that's been empty for two years.

Many other states divide the appointment powers among the branches of government, allowing the governor and the chief justice of the state supreme court to make appointments, as well as legislative leaders.

That wouldn't totally de-politicize the appointment process, but it would expand the universe. Some states allow various groups to nominate members. Maine, alone, opens the door to nominations from the general public. It's an idea.

■ Mandate attendance. This matter was addressed in the House bill. There has not been one meeting since January of last year with all eight members in attendance. Two members have not attended any meetings this year, one of whom also missed two of four meetings last year.

With only five members of the nine-member board present for the Arnold hearing, it just took one nay vote to kill the charges, despite the commission staff's ruling that the complaints were legitimate.

There must be an attendance requirement and a process for removing members who don't meet it. This is routine on boards of all kinds to assure there will be enough members to conduct business and that people appointed are truly engaged.

Additionally, people who come before the board deserve to be heard by more than a handful of members.

■ Limit political activity. While all states, including Kentucky, restrict some types of political activity for sitting members, several prohibit all partisan political activity, including campaign contributions. A provision like that could go a long way toward keeping political hacks off the commission.

The nay vote in the Arnold case became even more controversial because it was cast by a politically connected Democratic lawyer recently appointed by Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, a Democrat, to the commission.

Legislative ethics — something of an oxymoron before FBI agents descended on the Capitol in 1992 in Operation BOPTROT — moved to the top of the agenda after 15 legislators were convicted as a result of that investigation.

In 1992 the General Assembly passed meaningful ethics legislation, creating the Ethics Commission to enforce it.

Soon legislators began to chafe under actual supervision and began tinkering with the laws. Several early members of the commission, including its first chairman, were so appalled by the ethical backtracking that in 1996 they resigned in protest.

That fire seems all but out now.

In the Arnold case, Senate Leader Robert Stivers has been quick to criticize Stumbo and his Democratic House for the handling of the complaints.

But the Legislative Ethics Commission is the responsibility of both leaders and if they really want it to do its job they should quit carping at each other about ethics and move quickly and firmly to reform the commission.

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