Recently, the Coalition for Integrity released a report on Enforcement of Ethics Rules by State Agencies (along with an associated index and map) which examined the performance of state-level ethics agencies across the United States. In addition to providing basic enforcement statistics, the report emphasized two aspects of these agencies’ performance. First, the report looked at how these agencies enforced the ethics laws they were charged with enforcing, to see how aggressively agencies stand up for ethical government within their legal authority. Second, the report examined how transparent the agencies were in that enforcement, and hence how accountable these agencies make themselves to the public. (The report also ranked each state and agency based on their transparency of enforcement). Both of these aspects of agency performance are crucial to creating a culture of honest government and a robust ethics enforcement regime. Some our headline findings with respect to each of these dimensions of performance were as follows:
- First, with respect to enforcement of ethics rules, it seems that state ethics agencies are reluctant—probably excessively reluctant—to recommend removal from office as a punishment for ethical violations. In 2018, only two state ethics agencies (those in Florida and Hawaii) recommended that a violator be removed from office. And in that same year, only two state ethics agencies (in Florida and Ohio) issued a public censure of an official. Instead of these more stringent sanctions, most ethics agencies issue resort primarily to private letters of admonition and fines. The former is obviously inadequate. Fines can be effective, and some states did impose significant fines (some in the tens of thousands of dollars). But in most cases the fines were for paltry amounts, usually under $1,000. In some states, such as Minnesota, the fines are statutorily limited at very low levels (a maximum of $100 for failure to file financial disclosure reports). In many states, even though there is statutory authority to impose sufficiently large fines to deter misconduct, such fines are hardly ever levied.
- Second, state ethics agencies need significant improvement in the transparency of their enforcement activities. The gold standard for an ethics agency, and the standard that state residents should demand, is to publish an annual or biennial report that clearly outlines the number of complaints received and dismissed, and the number of cases resolved with or without a finding of an ethics violation. Additionally, final decisions should be published on the agency’s website. (None of this basic information, it’s important to stress, would compromise the confidentiality of investigations.) Many states do not provide such comprehensive information, and some, such as Mississippi and North Carolina, not only do not furnish an annual report or publish any information about ethics enforcement whatsoever, but did not respond to multiple email requests for information. Other states are better, but only 18 of 50 state ethics agencies published a detailed report on the agency’s enforcement efforts in every year the agency was operational, and even some of those reports failed to adequately communicate the agency’s activities. This is a significant problem, as it’s in the public’s interest to know the behavior of public servants, and the actions of the government in response. Indeed, few things are more important for the public to be informed about than public servants behaving unethically or illegally.
Building a solid ethics regime requires improving both prongs of transparency and enforcement. State ethics agency must enforce ethics rules and laws in a way that demonstrates a commitment to ethical government, and that sends a clear statement to elected and appointed public servants that unethical dealings will be swiftly and harshly dealt with. Additionally, they should be open and honest with the public by publishing an annual or biennial report that communicates all relevant enforcement information. By improving on both these fronts simultaneously, states can take a major step towards the goal of honest government.