Legislators seem to seek out weak ethics laws

Nothing like absurdity in Congress to start 2017, first with anger, then with laughter.

On Monday, before the new House members were even sworn in, 119 House Republicans voted to dilute ethics investigations into themselves.

They agreed with U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., that it would be smart to move the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics under the House Ethics Committee. The mental giants who secretly voted in favor of this asinine move, which erupted into a public relations nightmare, also agreed to reduce most of the nonpartisan office’s powers.

Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was savvy enough to oppose it, but apparently not persuasive enough. Only he and 73 other Republicans voted against it.

The public reacted angrily. This was not the “drain the swamp” promised. This was a less noble “cover my butt.”

The spokeswoman for Nevada’s lone Republican in the House, Rep. Mark Amodei, didn’t respond to my Tuesday email asking how he voted in Monday’s closed meeting.

On Tuesday, public pressure prevailed and the vote turned into a never mind action. The ethics change never made it into the House Rules package to be approved.

I wish the outrage had been as swift and ferocious when Nevada legislators voted in the waning days of the 2015 session for an “emergency measure” that blocked the Nevada Ethics Commission from investigating legislators, something it had done previously.

The commission could investigate other public officials in other venues, but legislators were granted immunity from investigations by the executive or judicial branch and couldn’t be investigated. Because it passed it in the Legislature’s final days, Assembly Bill 496 received little attention from the press or the public.

It was a disgrace and I wasn’t laughing when I read the Review-Journal’s news article about it June 12, 2016, nearly a year after the bill passed.

Limiting the Nevada Ethics Commission is nothing new. Since it was created in 1971, it has been progressively weakened, sometimes by lawmakers, as it was this time, other times by courts, including the Nevada Supreme Court.

A perusal of ethics commission’s decisions shows all kinds of complaints against all kinds of officials. Mayors. City Council members. County commissioners. Sheriffs. School board members. Hospital board members. Regulatory agency members.

And yes, legislators.

State Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas; Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, then-State Sen. Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas, even former Assemblyman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, all have faced ethics complaints.

Few complaints are found worthy of punishment because the violations have to be willful.

Among those named above, Arberry, later charged criminally for misusing campaign money, was found to have willfully violated ethics laws. A $500 fine was his penalty in 2010. He had resigned from the legislature and negotiated a lobbying contract with Clark County courts.

Other complaints were dismissed, such as one against former state Sen. Michael Schneider, D-Las Vegas, and another against Hutchison.

Hutchison, an attorney who is now lieutenant governor, failed to list the names of three clients he represented before a state agency, calling it confidential. The commission said he should have but found no willful violation.

Basically, Nevada legislators decided that every other public official was up for scrutiny, but they were not. They can be investigated only by the Senate or the Assembly, depending on the body where they served.

Self-policing is the answer? I think not. The legislature’s own ethics committee doesn’t seem to have met. Ever.

I’m ashamed and embarrassed by the Nevada Legislature’s actions two years ago. Our state is repeatedly smacked down for its feeble ethics laws, as it should be.

The history of the bill is not pretty. It was introduced May 31, 2015, considered June 1 in the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee first, then rushed through by the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations. It passed both houses without one “no” vote and was signed into law June 10, 2015, by Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Kevin Powers, the Assembly committee’s legal adviser, told legislators the bill “provides immunity against prosecution and inquiry. … That means that the legislator cannot be questioned by another branch of government for carrying out those legislative duties.”

The Ethics Commission belongs to the executive branch. It was never specifically mentioned during the committee discussion.

Perhaps if AB 496 had been the first action by the 2015 Legislature, and the news media had shined a light on it, the public and the press would have been able to raise objections.

But that didn’t happen.

Nevada legislators backdoored the move, unlike House Republicans, who charged head-on with their ethics-gutting effort and within 24 hours, went into reverse and made themselves look idiotic and hypocritical.

A memorable, but lousy, start to the new Congress.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column runs Thursdays. Leave messages for her at 702-383-0275 or email jmorrison@reviewjournal.com. Find her on Twitter: @janeannmorrison