“Ethics” in the Short Session

And some people say the end of a session is a circus. They must have been watching the passage of House Bill 2542 the bill passed by lawmakers during the waning days of the 2008 session to "clarify ethics and lobbying laws."  

It was a lot like a magic act as the General Assembly worked on 'technical' amendments to North Carolina's Ethics Law –Now you see it! Now you don’t! And no one seems to know how (or why) it was done. There was lots of back and forth in the last week of the session about the ethics bill which was in theory merely a technical correction, but somehow the bill ended up as 28 pages long and with more than technical corrections in it. 

The high point of this bill is probably what wasn’t in it –a very large (the size of a Sherman tank) loophole to the gift ban exemption which showed up about 2:30 Thursday afternoon in the proposed Committee substitute in the Senate Select Committee on Elections and Government Reform. It allowed for a gift ban exemption that would have allowed legislators, legislative employees, and public employees to have someone other than the state of North Carolina pay for their food, beverages, registration, travel, lodging, entertainment, and items of nominal value provided in conjunction or in connection with a meeting or conference. It did require that the person get prior authorization for their attendance at the meeting. It didn’t require that they get prior authorization for someone to pay for them. 

No one seemed to know who was going to tell legislators whether or not they could attend a conference – the Speaker, the President Pro Tem of the Senate, George Hall. No one was willing to take credit for the provision. According to the Senate, the House put it in and according to the House, it must have been the Senate.  In the end, with enough pressure from the Coalition and friends, the provision was pulled.

The bill also redefines what a public event is. Legislators said that they didn’t really mean “public events” where the statues now say “public events”. These events were never really meant to be open to the public. Generally, they are social events (receptions) for members of the General Assembly, legislative employees, or public servants  along with lobbyists, lobbyists’ principals, and members of organizations, groups, associations, etc. To clarify what they meant, they divided “public events “ into three categories.

-A meeting of a public body such as a city council as long as the notice of the meeting follows the Open Meetings Law.

-A gathering of an organization with at least ten people in attendance with a sign, or other indication that it is open to the public.

-A gathering of a person or governmental unit to which the entire board of which a public servant is a member, at least 10 public servants, all the members of the House of Representatives, all the members of the Senate, all the members of a county or municipal legislative delegation, all the members of a recognized legislative caucus with regular meetings other than meetings with one or more lobbyists, all the members of a committee, a standing subcommittee, a joint committee or joint commission of the House of Representatives, the Senate, or the General Assembly, or all legislative employees are invited.

There are conditions not really different form existing law except that only 24 hours is required for an invitation which must be written and one of the following applies: The "official" reason for the 24 hour notice is that the members of the General Assembly are worried about their safety if there is more public notice than 24 hours given about an event.  We have already made it clear that we dislike this section that we want transparency about these events and will try to change the law in the long session.

On the House side, we also managed to remove a provision about scholarships to meetings like NCSL. It showed up in a less obnoxious though far from perfect form in negotiations about concurrence on Friday along with a couple of other things.  Unfortunately, the last of those negotiations took place about 4- 4:15 on Friday so we couldn’t get exactly what we wanted. The final language does allow for scholarships to meetings related to legislative positions and official duties. Most of the rest of the bill is truly technical amendments – clarifying words, etc.  However, there are a few substantive things.

For example, the State Ethics Commission (SEC) will no longer issue an evaluation of each statement of economic interest (SEI) since they (the SEC) believes that everything can be a conflict of interest for legislators since the scope of their responsibilities is so broad. Legislators will be notified within 7 days of an allegation made about them to the SEC, the SEC will have 7 days after the submission of a completed SEI to make any recommendations or decisions about the appointees to the UNC Board of Governors or Community College Boards of trustees. The SEC will have to publish redacted opinions within thirty days after the Commission makes a decision and issues a formal opinion.

In sum, while there are a few minor improvements to the Ethics Act in this bill, it is not a step forward.  The General Assembly needs to know that North Carolinians demand the highest standards of honesty and openness. We're not there yet.