Herald-Leader Editorial

Ethics ruling done, reforms still due

May 13, 2014 

When the Legislative Ethics Commission in April fell one vote short of finding former state Rep. John Arnold guilty of ethical violations involving sexual harassment, the ensuing storm of protest was driven by two distinct perceptions of a system failing to function properly.

The most basic of these perceptions was the feeling by many that, given the strength of the evidence, justice was denied for the three female Legislative Research Commission employees who accused Arnold of inappropriate behavior toward them.

On this level, Wednesday's decision by the ethics panel to issue a public reprimand and fine Arnold $1,000 on each of the three charges against him can be viewed as rectifying a miscarriage of justice.

However, revisiting the Arnold case did nothing to address the other perception of system failure in the ethics commission's operations.

When the panel took up the allegations against Arnold in April, just five of its eight members were present. A ninth seat on the commission has been vacant for two years because House and Senate leaders have not agreed on a joint appointment.

Since five votes are required for any commission action, to say it is unwise to take up a high-profile case (or any ethics complaint, for that matter) when a single dissenter can derail it is an understatement. Given the firestorm created by the panel's April misstep, we hope the commission learned a valuable lesson.

But this misstep was simply a product of more fundamental problems involving the appointment process for the panel (that two-year vacancy) and its members' record of attendance, or more accurately, non-attendance.

Responding to the furor over the commission's April failure, the House, on the final day of this year's General Assembly session, amended a Senate bill to address those issues by creating mechanisms to force legislative leaders to act promptly on appointments and authorizing the ethics panel to remove, on its own volition, any member who has not attended at least half of the panel's meetings in a calendar year.

The latter provision seems far too lenient. Anyone unable or unwilling to attend a preponderance of meetings should decline an appointment to a panel as important as the Legislative Ethics Commission.

Unfortunately, the Senate did not take up the House-approved measure before the session ended. But these proposed changes, with a more stringent attendance requirement, need the full attention of the General Assembly the next time it meets. In addition, the current restrictions on political activity by members of the commission need to be expanded to include a ban on any form of campaign contributions while serving on the panel.

Finally, it must be noted that going into a closed session to discuss procedural issues, as the ethics commission did Wednesday over the objections of members of the media, was a terrible move by a panel badly in need of doing everything possible to restore its credibility. Procedural issues do not qualify under Kentucky law as a valid reason to conduct the public's business in secretive meetings.

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