Ethics Commission not much of a watchdog

May 20, 2010 3:24:53 PM PDT
The State Ethics Commission is charged with keeping government in North Carolina honest. But since the agency's creation in 2006, it hasn't found anyone guilty of anything. Nobody's been kicked out of office or even fined.

The State Ethics Commission does a few basic things. It teaches state employees about the state ethics act, gives opinions on the law, and investigates complaints about potential violations of the law. In the last three and a half years, ABC11 research has found the commission has taken in 231 complaints that we know of.

None have ended in disciplinary action or even hearings.

That's fodder for critics like former FBI agent Frank Perry, who used to teach the ethics law to state employees.

"I don't think the process works at all," he told ABC11.

Another critic is government watchdog Jane Pinsky with Coalition for Lobbying, who's been working to strengthen state ethics laws for years. She agrees that the commission could take a stronger stand.

"I do think that they need to be more aggressive, but I think that they're still swamped with the day-to-day stuff," she offered.

That day-to-day stuff is the other part of what the commission does. It helps government officials understand what they can and can't take as gifts.

Executive Director Perry Newson says that takes up most of their time.

"We've been understaffed and under-resourced since the beginning on this," he said.

Newson also points out that of the more than 200 complaints they've received, only a handful have merited full blown investigations because of the way the law is written.

"It contains some very specific legal requirements for what has to be done for filing a complaint, reviewing a complaint, and proceeding with a complaint. It's fairly specific and we don't have discretion over that," he explained.

What's more, Newson says not everyone in government falls under the commission's jurisdiction. Lawmakers and judges, for instance, have their own committees.

"A lot of the complaints are against people we don't cover, a lot of the things are about complaints not covered in that act," said Newson.

But Perry says that is part of the problem.

"We have an ethics act that emphasizes form over substance," he said.

Both Perry and Pinsky say changes to the law could make a huge difference in the state's ability to effectively police itself. They suggest changes like simplifying North Carolina's gift laws, allowing anonymous complaints, giving the Attorney General power to call investigative grand juries, and establishing an honest services law modeled after a federal law that says we have the right to fair and honest representation by the people we elect.

"North Carolina, to really repair its image and address integrity in government issues, should be proactive and have its own honest services fraud statute, coupled with investigative grand juries so that we fix our own problems," said Perry.

But there's a more basic problem at the Ethics Commission: manpower. Newson says allowing more complaints would mean more work and he says the nine people on his staff already have more than they can handle.

"The complaints have picked up for some reason. I don't understand what it is, but they have picked up tremendously. They're on double the pace from the prior two years," he said.

Governor Perdue says she's committed to making the Ethics Commission as effective as possible.

"If they don't have the tools they need, we need to find that out and we'll do that," she told ABC11.

But Perry and other critics say promises and explanations don't add up to results.

"Look at the number of public corruption convictions in the last decade," said Perry. "You'll see that we are not doing the job ourselves."

"They end up dependent on the SBI, on the FBI, and on the county bureaus of investigation because they don't have the staff or the resources to do a solid investigation," said Pinsky.

Newson agrees and begs patience of those who would judge the commission by the lack of people it's punished.

"The book's not closed - I don't think - you shouldn't write us off in May of 2010, because it's not over yet," he offered.

If the core of the Commission's limitations are funding and staffing, then those two things may be partially addressed this year. Its current budget is just under one million dollars, and they've requested a 50 percent increase in funding.

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