Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Ethics Task Force gets some expert insight

Gridlock and confidentiality of complaints were among the issues discussed yesterday by a House task force assigned to evaluate whether or not a permanent ethics committee should be set up in the House of Representatives.

The House Task Force on Standards of Conduct sat down yesterday with Professor Alan Rosenthal of the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University, and Jack Maskell, Legislative Attorney of the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress via teleconference.

The ethics committee would tackle complaints issued against members of the House that might not fall under the jurisdiction of the state Ethics Commission. Some of the issues the task force considered yesterday were whether the ethics committee should be equal parts Democrat and Republican and how to avoid potential gridlock in that situation.

The question of confidentiality and who would be allowed to submit complaints were two concerns. Although members of the ethics committee would have to keep complaints confidential, it would be difficult to impose the same rule upon groups or individuals outside the legislature filing complaints.

Maskell and members of the task force also talked about how to handle unfair complaints lodged in the few months before an election.

Rosenthal advised that an ethics committee take a preventive, not policing role. It would be up to the House leadership to make judicious appointments to the committee, he said.

He added that about one third of ethics committees in state legislatures are joint House-Senate committees.

In the past, the House has formed special committees to investigate claims against lawmakers when they come up. House members abide by an internal code of conduct, but a permanent committee on standards of conduct would be a first.

Majority Leader Kirk Caldwell, who is heading up the task force, requested that members begin drafting some wording for the measure before the next meeting on Sept. 19 at 10:00 a.m.

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