We all want our public officials to be ethical.
We all assume that some public officials won’t be unless we make them.
That is why most states have an Ethics Commission. Its job is to tell public officials what they can and cannot do, and hold them accountable if they don’t follow the rules.
I know, public officials should be ethical even without being told to be, but not everyone agrees on what is or is not ethical, so it is the Commission’s job to help them.
Unfortunately, in carrying out this noble task, Ethics Commissions and Commissioners are often as fuzzy on what is and is not ethical as the public officials they are suppose to instruct and regulate.
This fuzziness gets even fuzzier when Commissioners are dealing with lobbyists who are trying to get legislators to vote a certain way and are willing to go the unethical route to get them to.
So how do you keep lobbyists and legislators ethical?
This year the Alabama Ethics Commission seemed to solve the problem by ruling that a legislator could also be a lobbyist.
Yep, combine the roles so that the lobbyist could lobby himself (or in this case herself) in the privacy of their own home, and if they did it was nobody’s business but theirs.
Happily for the state, our Attorney General pointed out to the Ethics Commission that under its own rules this was illegal, so the Ethics Commission backed off and pouted.
However, when it comes to facing up to what is and is not ethical, Alabama has a long way to go before it can match North Carolina and Missouri.
Like most states (including Alabama) NC and MO require that public officials report income, gifts, benefits, and things of value that come from the largess of lobbyists and others trying to influence legislation.
Well, apparently North Carolina was having a problem with lobbyists giving politicians something more than a barbecue dinner or a weekend of golf at Hilton Head. I say this because Ethics Commissions never, ever, address problems unless there is a problem to address, so when I read that Ethics watchdogs in NC were trying to put a value on the services of prostitutes who were hired by a lobbyist to sway the opinion of a public official (I am having trouble with word choice here), I knew there was hanky-panky in the Tar Heel State.
Now why would the Ethics Commission want to put a price on that?
Well, under the law, a public official is required to report a transaction that involved something of value. So is the lobbyist.
The law also requires that the value be reported.
And that the report be made public. .
Not something a public official or a lobbyist wants.
Nor, it seems, did the North Carolina Ethics Commission.
Realizing the can of worms they were about to open, the Commission ruled that the lobbyist doing the providing and the officials on the receiving end did not have to report the transaction because – get ready – sex has no value in North Carolina.
Does this mean, one commentator opined, that in North Carolina “lobbying firms can hire people with the explicit goal to seduce and fornicate with politicians in order to garner favor” and not even have to report it?
Meanwhile, in Missouri, the concern was less over prostitutes provided by lobbyists than about lobbyists who were literally in bed with legislators.
To combat this problem, Bart Norman, a Montgomery County Republican, introduced legislation that defined sex between lobbyists and legislators, or between lobbyists and members of the legislative staff as – get ready again – a gift.
And gifts must be included on the gift disclosure form that lobbyists fill out every month.
Imagine the line at the Ethics Commission office when the monthly reports are released. “Look what the utilities lobby gave Sen. Soapy, and him a Deacon and all.”
Lobbyists that are married to legislators are exempt from this since, apparently, sex between married folks is something other than a gift, at least in the eyes of Rep. Norman.
The question of cost was avoided when the bill added that “the reporting of sexual relations . . . shall not require a dollar valuation.”
Good move. A lobbyist could get into trouble suggesting that sex with one legislator is worth more than sex with another.
The whole thing gives the Missouri motto, “the show me state,” a new, um, twist.
I can see me getting into trouble by taking this subject much farther, so I will leave it to you, gentle reader, to carry the burden for me.
Meanwhile, I will just sit back and thank my stars that the Alabama Ethics Commission has nothing like that to worry about. But if they ever do, NC and MO have shown them the way.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We all want our public officials to be ethical.