Here’s another sign that Vermont’s Founding Fathers may have been drunk when they wrote our Constitution. Which, among other flaws, appears to give the Legislature sole authority over its own ethics.
Today, the Senate Rules Committee showed why that’s such a bad idea. While the Judiciary Committee has been busily slashing a proposed Ethics Commission into a glorified filing cabinet, the Rules Committee has been developing a parallel process for its own members.
Today, the Rules Committee adopted an ethics process for the Senate. And according to Seven Days’ Nancy Remsen, the Senate ethics process is designed, first and foremost, to ensure that its members are protected from public embarrassment. (To clarify: she didn’t say that, I did. But her outline of the procedure allows no other interpretation.)
As I’ve written before, the House Ethics Panel is a sorry-ass excuse for a watchdog. The Senate ethics panel won’t be any better, and may be significantly worse.
According to Remsen, the ethics panel would accept complaints and first decide (behind closed doors) if there’s grounds for an investigation. If they say no, then nothing else happens.
If they decide an investigation is warranted, the investigation is conducted completely behind closed doors.
If the investigation results in a settlement between the panel and the accused senator, that settlement is shared with the original complainant. As far as I can tell, this would be the ethics panel’s first communication with the complainant.
If the panel and subject can’t reach a settlement, the panel could draw up charges and hold hearings. And yes, the hearings would be closed. Let’s let Remsen explain the rest of the process.
If after a court-like process, the panel concluded that an ethical violation had occurred, it would introduce a resolution listing the charges, the evidence, the findings and recommendations for disciplinary action. The full Senate would vote on this resolution.
All records associated with the procedure — except for the resolution itself — would remain confidential and not be subject to requests under the Public Records Act.
Lawmakers who don’t want ethics oversight often bring up the notion that a member might be unfairly targeted with ethics complaints — that some political foe would blizzard the member with complaints, thus creating an atmosphere of ethical squalor around the unfortunate member.
This process was clearly designed with that straw-man argument in the forefront. At every step along the way, it protects the member at the expense of transparency and the public interest.
But hey, what do you expect when Our Founding Fathers gave the foxes sole authority over the henhouse? (Or, at least, so claim our elected foxes.)