By Mike Mullen
Ethics enforcement is the first line of defense in protecting the public trust. A state can have all of the proper laws to regulate government behavior, but those laws mean little without a professional and independent enforcement mechanism in place.
The State Integrity Investigation looked into whether states had a fully capable agency, one that could initiate investigations, carry out its mandate without outside interference and impose penalties on those who violate ethics laws across all branches of government. Examples of wrongdoing could range from a legislative leader soliciting under-the-table campaign donations to a workaday state employee taking a gift bribe in exchange for special treatment.
With that much on the line, it’s telling that the two states that the top two states in the Ethics Enforcement category (New Jersey and Connecticut, respectively), also took the top two spots in the State Integrity Investigation's overall rankings. The bottom of the category rankings is unlike any other subject under review in the State Integrity Investigation. Alarmingly, nine states were found to have no ethics enforcement agency in place, and received 0 percent ‘F’ grades.
New Jersey ranked first in Ethics Enforcement with a 92 percent ‘A’ grade. The Garden State has an independent agency with broad powers of investigation and a rigorous structure that prevents outside interference. New Jersey has a near-perfect set of laws governing ethics enforcement, with the one glaring exception being the State Ethics Commission’s reliance on the legislature for its budget. That potential flaw is mitigated by the legislature’s willingness to fund “sufficient staff and resources” for the commission, an indicator which state reporter Colleen O’Dea marked with a 100 percent score.
The agency’s effectiveness is bolstered by its practice of collecting anonymous complaints, which whistleblowers can initiate through a toll-free hotline. Once received, complaints must be looked into: Citing a response from executive director Peter Tober, O’Dea writes that the commission “has statuatory authority to administratively dismiss only complaints that are patently frivolous.”
Among the nine states receiving 0 percent scores due to their effective lack of ethics enforcement, some revealing examples stand out. For example, in New Hampshire, ethics regulation is left to legislative committees, which can recommend legislation and conduct hearings and investigations, but to limited extent: “The ethics committees can only make recommendations,” writes state reporter Jon Greenberg. “The legislature can act to censure a lawmaker based on those recommendations.”
Beyond that, the ethics committee can merely pass along its findings to the Attorney General’s office, which can choose to prosecute, or the executive branch, which may call for a legislator’s resignation.
In Utah, another state rated with a 0 percent score, state reporter Jon Daley found responsibility for ethics enforcement spread out across a number of weak entities.
“However,” Daley writes, “there is no one agency or set of agencies tasked with doing so under state law and an ad hoc system of enforcement has evolved, which has no guiding vision, relatively weak enforcement powers and no state-wide coordination.”