On the Friday before the Legislature’s session began, Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett and House Speaker Scott Bedke sat side by side and seemed to espouse the same idea — that it’s time for Idaho to join 41 other states in the formation of an ethics commission.
Stennett reminded the press and lawmakers present that day that Idaho Democrats have been pushing for an independent ethics commission for six years, with a stress on the word “independent.”
Bedke responded by saying that house lawmakers are looking at details of what an ethics commission would look like. He did not elaborate, and he did not use the word “independent.”
We have two things to say. First, it’s about time. Second, if an ethics commission is not independent, it is not worth the time, money or effort. It will only be a wasteful charade. As we have learned again and again, lawmakers protect their own. They have an incredible capacity for forgiveness of the wrongdoings of their colleagues. That is, until it’s politically expedient to do otherwise.
To further illustrate our point, when Gov. “Butch” Otter addressed the question of ethics that same day, he said it was a matter of “optics” and that most legislators merely needed to be trained to avoid the appearance of impropriety. He said that most ethical issues are nothing more than perception problems created by the media. Ironically, U.S. Senator Mike Crapo was pleading guilty to a DUI charge in Virginia that very same morning.
On Monday’s Times-News Opinion page, columnist Randy Stapilus said that many lawmakers are offended by the idea that they need an ethics commission. They take it personally, he said.
Are our lawmakers perfect? Are any of us?
No matter how good their intentions, our lawmakers are exposed to daily temptation in myriad ad forms. Spend an afternoon with any of our area lawmakers and you will see them approached and reproach, fawned over, prodded. Drinks are free. Dinners are free. Doors are open. It’s easy to feel like the center of the universe, even as a freshman. It’s easy to lose perspective. It’s easy for the line between right and wrong to blurred.
If anything good came of last year’s cautionary tale that ended the career of Senate Majority Caucus Chairman John McGee, it could be the establishment of this much needed commission.
Already, the legislature — with its seats full of fresh faces — began the session with ethics training: In December, when then-House Speaker Lawerence Denney greeted 44 new Idaho lawmakers at a luncheon, he welcomed them to the “goldfish bowl,” according to an Idaho Statesman blog.
“Everything you do is going to be observed,” he told them. “You’re going to have to be very, very careful what you do, when you do it and how you do it because it may be the headline the next day.” With very few exceptions those headlines are the result of real ethical lapses. Those lapses are not matters of perception or “optics”, they’re stories of someone doing something they shouldn’t have done – and getting caught. Instituting an independent ethics commission is an important first step toward admitting that these ethical violations are real.