The public would no longer know about some ethics complaints against many public officials if legislation to end the practice of lawmakers policing themselves becomes law.
State Ethics Commission executive director Herb Hayden pointed out that side effect Wednesday contained in ethics-reform proposals now before the Legislature.
Dismissed ethics complaints against House and Senate members, which now are investigated by legislative ethics committees, never become public. But ethics complaints against all other public officials now are made public when the Ethics Commission dismisses a complaint or finds probable cause of an ethics violation.
But that would change under proposals that would have the Ethics Commission investigate ethics complaints against all public officials, including legislators. Under those House and Senate proposals, ethics complaints against any elected officials no longer would be made public if they are dismissed.
It weakens the law “when you go from having something that is public to making it now confidential,” Hayden said.
But one government watchdog said that loss of openness is OK if it means legislators no longer are secretly policing themselves.
“We may lose a little information, but I’m convinced that what we have here is a structure that is so much better than what we’ve had,” said Lynn Teague of the League of Women Voters.
Meanwhile, the public will not find out how many ethics complaints are filed against state legislators each year.
The Ethics Commission sought that information so it would have an idea how much added work it would have to do if the commission is put in charge of investigating ethics complaints against legislators, Hayden told a state Senate panel Wednesday.
Hayden told Senate budget writers that he asked the House and Senate Ethics committees how many complaints those legislative-watchdog panels handle in a year, but he did not get an answer.
“They have both told us that that information is confidential,” Hayden said, presenting his agency’s budget request for the fiscal year that starts July 1. “They won’t even give us a number. We have no way of knowing.”
The Ethics Commission, which enforces state ethics laws for non-legislative public officials, handles about 175 complaints a year. To keep up with that workload and take on more cases, the commission is asking lawmakers for $99,500 to hire two auditors and $147,000 to pay for two additional investigators.
“We’ve come to a point that we just don't have the funds to take care of the needs of the agency,” Hayden said.