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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ind. Gov't. - Kentucky ethics enforcer says tough rules curb lawmaker misconduct

Maureen Hayden, CNHI State Reporter, has a long story Monday in the Greensburg Daily News. A few quotes:

Anthony Wilhoit was pleased to hear some Indiana good-government advocates describe his beloved Kentucky as the state with the “toughest ethics law” in the nation.

For 17 years, as head of the independent Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, Wilhoit's been the chief enforcer of rules that govern the conduct of lawmakers as it relates to their elected duties. * * *

Wilhoit is glad to hear that Indiana legislative leaders have pledged to tackle ethics reform – a decision brought on by high-profile scandals over the last year that exposed some gaping holes in ethics rules. But he cautions that stricter rules that force legislators to be more transparent aren’t a panacea.

“It’s good, but that doesn’t necessarily prevent them from doing things they shouldn’t,” Wilhoit said during an interview.

He knows. He’s gotten after legislators in Kentucky for violating wide-ranging rules that, among other things, compel lawmakers to disclose any economic interest in a matter that comes before them -- and then bars them from ever voting or even voicing support for it.

A lawyer and judge in an earlier career, Wilhoit favors preventative action when he can. He recalls watching live video of a state Senate debate and seeing a particular lawmaker move to vote.

“I knew he had a clear conflict of interest, so I called down to the floor and got him on the phone,” Wilhoit said. “I warned him not to do it.”

And he didn't.

Most the time, Wilhoit and his commission rely on lawmakers to follow the rules. Not everyone does, no matter the clarity of the rules.

A few years ago, the commission fined a lawmaker who voted to include a $170,000, no-bid sewer project in the state budget without disclosing some key information: The lawmaker owned the company that was awarded the bid.

Wilhoit thought that might result in a felony charge. That fell through when a chief witness dropped dead. * * *

Kentucky’s bumpy road to ethics reform came only after two major scandals in the 1990s. One was a federal bribery investigation that exposed 15 lawmakers who sold their votes, some for as little as $100. The other involved a governor’s spouse convicted of extorting more than $1 million in contributions from state contractors.

“We can’t say that kind of behavior doesn’t go on now,” Wilhoit said. “But it’s not one-tenth of what it was back then.”

Wilhoit’s commission has taken some hits for not being tough enough. A Harvard University study released last week gave both Indiana and Kentucky poor grades for their legislative ethics.

Wilhoit said the study, based on polling of political reporters, is too harsh.

But its conclusion still worries him. It’s why he spends much of his time “trying to hammer” the message to lawmakers that their behavior matters.

“I tell them, 'You all got to be very careful about the appearance of the things you do,'” he said. “Because people just don’t trust their leaders anymore.”

The ILB has obtained a copy of the Harvard report mentioned in the story. The story looks at public perception of corruption in the three branches of government and how each state scores. "Illegal executive corruption" is rated "moderately common" in both Indiana and Illinois, among other states. This was a surprise to the ILB: Illinois, of course, has had many recent governors sent to prison! Both Indiana and Illinois, as well as Kentucky, scored "very common" (4 out of 5) for "Illegal Corruption Legislative." For "Illegal Corruption Judicial", Indiana scored 1 out of 5 - "not at all common."

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 17, 2014 10:13 AM
Posted to Indiana Government