Commentary: Legislators need to be governed by ethics laws

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Delaware legislators are exempt from Delaware’s ethics laws, leading the state to become one of the most corrupt in the nation. This can be fixed.

Delaware has a decades-long history of corruption by elected officials. “People want to give us gifts” is a quote attributed to former state senator and eventual Senate pro tem, David McBride, D-Hawks Nest, in late 2013 during the scandal that followed the release of the “Report of Independent Counsel on the Investigation of Violations of Delaware Campaign Finance and Related State Laws” by E. Norman Veasey, former chief justice of the Delaware Supreme Court.

It is the attitude demonstrated by former Sen. McBride, which can still be found among Delaware’s elected officials, that drives the increasing demand for ethics reform in Delaware.

Despite the extensive media coverage and some weak follow-up legislation after the Veasey report, Delaware remains one of the worst states in the nation in terms of public corruption.

In 2015, the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity released an updated report, measuring and ranking each state in 13 different criteria. The report excoriated every state (the highest rank was only a C), but special condemnation was aimed at Delaware for ranking 48th in the nation — specifically in the areas of Legislative Accountability and State Pension Fund Management.

Two years later, in 2017, The Daily Beast reported that Delaware was the fourth most corrupt state in the country (trailing only Tennessee, Virginia and Mississippi). The article’s author notes explicitly, “(s)ome states show particular prowess in one area of corruption or another. New York leads with racketeering and extortion, Delaware is tops in embezzlement.”

Why might the Center for Public Integrity and The Daily Beast have such low opinions of Delaware’s lawmakers and their ethical considerations? Because Delaware’s legislators have exempted themselves from Delaware’s ethics laws.

A quick read of Delaware Code Title 29, Chapter 58, Section 5804, paragraphs 12 and 13 shows that members of the General Assembly have exempted themselves from Delaware laws relating to both “Conflicts of Interest” and “Code of Conduct.” Furthermore, in the unlikely case of a decision by the Public Integrity Commission on a legislator matter, the legislator simply can require the decision to remain confidential from the public.

Deborah Moreau, the Delaware Public Integrity Commission’s lawyer and sole staffer says state law “leaves the Delaware General Assembly with something of an honor system when it comes to public ethics laws.”

Sadly, this issue seems unimportant to Gov. John Carney, whose recommended operating budget for the commission during his leadership has barely increased.

Necessary improvements

Justice Veasey and later reformers have been stymied in attempts to get real reform in Delaware. State law was and remains too weak, and the Public Integrity Commission has no teeth. We can improve our system, and here are some recommendations:

• Audit state legislators’ personal financial-disclosure documents and make the disclosure documents and audits on the Public Integrity Commission website available for download.

• Eliminate the exemption of state legislators from Delaware’s Conflict of Interest and Code of Conduct statutes.

• Require Delaware legislators to disclose the business and/or economic entities from which they receive any earnings, compensation or equity returns. This disclosure should also include spousal/partner sources of earnings, compensation or equity returns.

• Change Delaware law, so that legislators have a one-year waiting period between serving in the legislature and receiving a job with a nonprofit that receives over 25% of its budget or over $1 million from the state government.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison, primary author of the Constitution, wrote memorably in Federalist No. 51. Madison then continued that a “dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government.” For the people of Delaware to control their government, they need to ensure that their legislators are acting ethically, but our legislators have exempted themselves from this oversight. As a result, Delaware has become one of the most corrupt states in the country, which is an embarrassment for all.

Charlie Copeland is the director of the Center for Analysis of Delaware’s Economy & Government Spending at the Caesar Rodney Institute.

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