Commentary: Understanding the Limited Authority of Ethics Commissions

Published date01 January 2015
Date01 January 2015
Bruce A. Androphy is an ethics prac-
titioner with more than 25 years of service
who currently directs an ethics program at
an agency of the federal government.
Understanding the Limited Authority of Ethics Commissions 111
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 75, Iss. 1, pp. 111–112. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12316.
Bruce A. Androphy
For the practitioner, Jonathan Rauh’s very com-
pelling article, “Predicting Political Inf‌l uence
on State Ethics Commissions: Of Course We
Are Ethical—Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink,” provides
perspective on and understanding of the nature of
ethics commissions and their inherent limitations. It
also reveals to a larger audience some uncomfortable
truths that many of us in the world of government
ethics already know: state ethics commissions are
primary compliance organizations that come into
existence after scandals to appease public sentiment.
According to Rauh, their mandates “generally are not
well def‌i ned and usually target popular notions of cor-
ruption, such as quid pro quo, while failing to address
more nuanced indicators of corruption, such as strong
f‌i nancial disclosure requirements for elected of‌f‌i cials.
Rauh is on point when he notes that, generally, public
attention to ethics commissions quickly fades once
the scandal subsides, thus reducing the commission’s
mission and ef‌f ectiveness.
Rauh also correctly identif‌i es the paradox that com-
missions are created by the very legislatures or execu-
tive branches that they are asked to oversee.  us,
there is an incentive for the legislative body to take
steps to ensure that the ethics commission is not too
successful or threatening to the body that created it.
Rauh identif‌i es such steps as appointing commission-
ers who have strong ties to the political establishment
or are otherwise nonthreatening, providing the com-
mission with limited investigative authority, and pro-
viding insuf‌f‌i cient funding or personnel. He depicts
most ethics commissions as “a palliative for public
distrust” and notes that elected of‌f‌i cials are more likely
to create and empower ethics commissions when they
do not perceive them as a serious threat.
Rauh does not limit himself to the restraining power
of legislatures on the authority of ethics commissions.
Certainly, the recent example of Governor Andrew
Cuomo of New York interfering with his state’s ethics
authority reinforces Rauh’s argument that ethics com-
missions cannot bite the hands that feed them.
Much of the article addresses the authority and proc-
ess for appointing ethics commissioners, which varies
from state to state in terms of which body makes
appointments and which gets to conf‌i rm. Against this
background, Rauh proposes several theories on pre-
dicting political inf‌l uence on state ethics commissions.
One of those is the locus of the appointment power.
Rauh argues that where there is greater centralization
of appointment (limited oversight of the appoint-
ment), those making the appointments will have more
political inf‌l uence over their appointees. He also notes
that the power to remove a commissioner may also
be a “potent weapon” to keep ethics commissioners
under control.
Rauh proposes several other somewhat speculative
theories on measuring the ef‌f ectiveness of ethics com-
missions. For example, he uses the salary of the leg-
islature compared with the average salary in the state
to determine whether the legislator is incurring a cost
by his or her service. Studies have shown that poorer
citizens who run for of‌f‌i ce have more incentive to
behave honestly because they have a higher incentive
to keep their positions, while wealthier legislators have
the f‌i nancial ability to absorb the costs of any f‌i nes.
Another barometer for assessing the independence and
ef‌f ectiveness of an ethics commission is the prevalence
of corruption convictions.  e premise is that where
there are convictions, there is a strong and independ-
ent ethics commission. But Rauh correctly notes that
it is dif‌f‌i cult to draw such a conclusion. For example,
most corruption convictions stem from federal investi-
gations. In fact, the intervention of a federal author-
ity may be more indicative of an inef‌f ective ethics
Rauh looks at other variables to assess ef‌f ectiveness.
For example, he proposes considering the budget of
an ethics commission against the number of indi-
viduals under its jurisdiction, as well at the budget
compared to the number of activities tasked to the
commission. He also suggests that more professional
Understanding the Limited Authority of Ethics Commissions

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT