Those who serve on ethics committees, commissions or boards have the unenviable job of enforcing ethics laws over public officials who often have created the boards, but would rather not be regulated by them.
Laws governing the behavior of government officials have been around since the early 1800s. During the next century, these regulations gradually increased, but the Watergate scandal of the 1970s caused an explosion of stricter ethics laws at all levels of government. As more laws were passed, it became apparent some degree of oversight was necessary to make sure they were obeyed.
"As were ethics laws, commissions also were post-Watergate reforms," says David E. Freel, former executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission. The early commissions oversaw the disclosure of public officials' financial, family and business interests, and other conflicts that could affect their duties, he says.
Hawaii and New Jersey established the first commissions in 1968. By 1980, 22 states had them, many created by constitutional amendment, and today, 41 states have ethics commissions. Utah voters established the most recent commission last year through a constitutional amendment referred by the Legislature. Alaska, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York and Washington have more than one commission, each with specific jurisdiction or authority.
"The public has greater confidence in legislators if ethics issues are reviewed by people outside of the legislative process," says Judge Anthony Wilhoit, executive director of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission. "At the same time, ethics commissions relieve legislators of the frequently onerous duty of investigating and judging one of their colleagues."
Are they effective?
It's difficult to measure, but Robert W. Smith at Clemson University thinks they are. "Ethics commissions ... offer symbolic assurances that ethics are being preserved," he writes in an article in Public Administration Review, simply because they exist and have the tools to uncover and punish unethical behavior.
"Even if it is underfunded, understaffed or irrelevant, the commission reassures the public by its...