State ethics update — June 5

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Here’s our biweekly round-up of recent developments regarding ethics policies in the states.

Following the indictment of former House Speaker Sal DiMasi on corruption charges at the beginning of the month, Massachusetts state legislators called an informal session to discuss ethics reform legislation. DiMasi allegedly pocketed $57,000 from a software company while helping the company receive state contracts. DiMasi has denied wrongdoing.

Governor Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo issued a joint statement on June 3 agreeing that “ethics reform legislation will be passed and signed into law swiftly that includes the best provisions from all three of our proposals.”

In Tennessee, the legislature finally voted in the first week of June to fold the state ethics commission into the Registry of Election Finance, which would save the state money. But critics worry that the move would weaken ethics laws as it leaves the state without an independent commission to oversee lawmakers.

Illinois, a hotbed for political corruption, managed to pass limits on campaign contributions on May 31, the final day of its legislative session. Earlier, Governor Pat Quinn appointed an ethics reform commission which proposed 39 separate measures to end the state’s “culture of corruption” — a notion that was reinforced late last month as Roland Burris came under new scrutiny over his appointment to the U.S. Senate.

But this is a minor improvement in a state that the Center once found had virtually no enforcement of its ethics laws and where only a handful of lawmakers disclosed information not explicitly required of them. (One of those who did happens to be now-President Barack Obama, an Illinois state senator at the time, who disclosed a list of his law firm’s clients. “My assumption was that my constituents had the right to know who my law firm represented,” Obama told the Center back in 1998.)

And in New York, where Governor David Paterson proposed a major restructuring of the ethics commission, a new plan surfaced this week from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver that would essentially allow the legislature to continue to regulate itself. The latest proposal, which calls for the creation of four oversight commissions, will likely prevent any compromise from being reached this legislative session.

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