SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Ethics Law Begs Many Questions
It's not surprising that state legislators this spring and summer revisited the ethics laws initially passed in 2006.
Complex laws often lead to clean-up bills in subsequent years. In many respects, the bill passed by legislators just before they left town meets the definition of clean-up, with pages and pages of technical changes.
But in a few important ways, the bill did more. Here and there, the law became weaker.
The action by the General Assembly leaves a troubling question: Are we going to see runs at weakening these ethics reforms every year, until they're watered down to nothing?
Legislators approved what amounted to three substantial changes in the law.
-- They passed clarifying language regarding the lobbyists-financed receptions and other events where food and drink are exempted under a gift ban. In the process, they made clear that invitations and notice of these receptions don't have to be extended until 24 hours beforehand. In the past, the State Ethics Commission interpreted the law to require 10 days' notice.
-- The State Ethics Commission will no longer be required to evaluate economic disclosure forms filed by legislators and other state officials. Officials at the ethics commission apparently believe there is no point to the evaluations, as legislators' duties are so broad that anything could constitute a conflict of interest. (Hmmm. Sounds like the same argument could be made for just dropping the forms.)
-- A question on the Statement of Economic Interest also changed. The forms are intended to help the public see any potential conflicts of interest by elected or appointed officials. The final question had been a catch-all, asking the filer to list any other activities or associations that might be perceived as a conflict.
It was changed to ask filers to list anything that may help the commission carry out its duties. Perhaps a new parenthetical line should accompany the revised question: "Please feel free to ignore."
-- Legislative leaders -- though its not clear whether from the House or Senate -- also took a stab at further widening a loophole in the gift ban. The provision would have allowed any state official to go to any conference, at the expense of a state contractor or lobbyist, as long as the person's "employing entity" signed off on it.
Whoever wanted the provision, they weren't able to slip it though in the final days without critics noticing it. The provision was dropped.
It's important to remember how the original ethics laws came about. They were passed during the most significant scandal in the history of the North Carolina General Assembly.
Privately, legislators grumbled then and now. Some thought the restrictions -- which have diminished the opportunities for influence-peddling -- would never pass. But worried about their tattered public image, nearly all legislators voted for the bills.
As scandal ebbs, some apparently are experiencing a bit of memory loss, concluding that this was much ado about nothing anyway.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at email@example.com.
More like this story