Monday, October 26, 2009

Mere Compliance VS. Ethics Reform in North Carolina Letter from Foundation for Ethics in Public Service

With permission from Hayley at the Foundation for Ethics in Public Service. Below is a letter from Executive Director Les Merritt.
While the Foundation for Ethics in Public Service CLICKHERE provides a service to the public nationwide, we are based in Raleigh, North Carolina. It is no secret that in the recent past North Carolina has had its fair share of public officials with ethics problems, and some continue to be under the scrutiny of prosecutors, law enforcement, and federal grand juries. When the North Carolina State Government Ethics Act was signed into law in 2006, many hoped that unethical conduct on the part of public officials in the state would at best decrease and at worst be exposed and investigated. Unfortunately, neither has been realized.
The high profile cases of former Speaker of the House Jim Black, former Legislator Mike Decker, former NC Lottery Commissioner Kevin Geddings, former US Congressman Frank Balance, former Commissioner of Agriculture Meg Scott Phipps, and others led to the establishment of a more formal ethics entity for the state of North Carolina. There was hope that establishing a structured and proactive Ethics Commission would thwart unethical behavior on the part of public officials in our state. This sentiment if not expectation was framed by the Commission’s Executive Director when he wrote, “On August 4th, 2006, Governor Easley signed the ‘State Government Ethics Act’ into law. It is the most comprehensive and sweeping ethics law in the history of the State and was the result of a tremendous bipartisan effort in both the House and Senate”. The same publication quotes then Governor Easley to the effect “North Carolina citizens have the right to know that the power they entrust to public officials is not abused for private gain or personal interest.” (attributed to Governor Michael F. Easley, 8/4/06, upon signing HB1843 [State Government Ethics Act], NC Board of Ethics Newsletter, Vol. 9, Issue 8).

However, in nearly three years of existence, the Commission has done little to tackle real ethics issues in our state. Not a single resolution of note has come as a result of any Ethics Commission investigation, even though several dozen complaints have been submitted or referred. For example, the media has reported that former Governor Mike Easley allegedly failed to disclose a seemingly inappropriate relationship on his Statement of Economic Interest, but this went undetected, or perhaps unchallenged, by the Ethics Commission. Meanwhile, a Board of Elections investigation continues into alleged campaign finance violations by former Governor Mike Easley, as well as a federal grand jury investigation of how his wife, Mary, obtained her position (and subsequent 80% raise) at North Carolina State University. These are only a few of the many aspects of possible violations of honest services law apparently before a federal grand jury. None of these issues appears to have been surfaced or investigated by the Ethics Commission. Earlier in the year, Ethics Commission staff said publicly on several occasions that a testament to the ethics and high moral quality of the public servants and legislators of North Carolina is the fact that there have been no substantiated cases resulting from allegations submitted to the Ethics Commission to date.

One has to wonder what exactly is the point of having an Ethics Commission if it is not going to take its role as an investigative or enforcement entity seriously. Do we really need to have ten salaried employees to file financial paperwork and offer advisory opinions? Also, the eight Commissioners who are expected to serve the public as an effective regulatory and watchdog entity have been silent in the face of the State’s continuing ethics crisis. The Commission has entirely too much discretion to ignore or dismiss complaints that come through its office. There is little to prevent management at the Commission from failing to aggressively investigate complaints against those who show political favor or exercise financial and administrative control over the Commission’s operations and budget. Since the General Assembly controls the purse strings of the Ethics Commission, how can the Commission effectively police the same agency that makes its existence possible? By the admission of its own Executive Director, the Ethics Commission is actually more of a compliance or conflict of interest entity than an “ethics” agency. The Ethics Commission must act with accountability and independence, and certainly needs oversight by the citizens who pay them. Since it is difficult to legislate “doing the right thing” as state government is currently structured (e.g. with an Ethics Commission whose members are appointed by political leaders and whose funding is controlled by those on whom it may receive an allegation of wrongdoing), the media becomes not only more relevant, but essential to counter public corruption. It also is essential that non-governmental, independent organizations such as the Foundation for Ethics in Public Service assist the media with investigating and exposing cases of corruption. We are a non-partisan, non-profit organization that does not rely upon the potential or actual subjects of complaints for financial support. Since we do not accept any government money, we are able to freely, fairly, and forthrightly examine all complaints that are received by our office without the fear of being retaliated against by those with political influence, before passing credible allegations on to our colleagues in the media. It is clear that such independent oversight must be as non-partisan, objective, careful, and absent of any zealotry, as all local, state, and federal oversight agencies are expected to be. But one difference is clear: conflict of interest and political influence are much less likely – hopefully absent – when the investigative, referral, and reporting process are in the hands of a non-governmental, non-partisan entity like the Foundation for Ethics in Public Service. Our donors, complainants, witnesses, and the greater public expect, and will receive, nothing less than unconditional objectivity.

Les Merritt
Foundation for Ethics in Public Service
Executive Director

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