Ethics in state government: Would you bite the hand that feeds you?

By Caitlin Ginley Center for Public Integrity The North Carolina Ethics Commission has received…

Georgia (Aug 10, 2012)By Caitlin Ginley
Center for Public Integrity


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The North Carolina Ethics Commission has received more than 300 ethics complaints since its establishment in 2006 — but it has initiated just 18 investigations through 2010.

The Tennessee Ethics Commission, also established in 2006, has yet to find anyone guilty of an ethics violation. It has heard five complaints in five years — and thrown all of them out.

The Pennsylvania Ethics Commission takes in between 400 and 600 complaints each year. But severe budget cuts have left the panel with only five full-time investigators to handle the workload.

And last year, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission had its full-time support staff reduced from two people to one. “It’s just me,” said Jane Feldman, the Colorado commission’s executive director. Feldman said she has an annual budget of $224,000 but — unlike commissions in many other states — no investigators or lawyers to initiate real enforcement. …

The problems and challenges are many. In some states, it boils down to a question of resources — short-staffed agencies with dwindling budgets, outdated, crumbling technology and an increasing workload. Other agencies face restrictions in the law; they can only investigate a complaint if the complainant is willing to be named, or if a majority of commissioners, who may be divided along party lines, agree to pursue a case.

Beyond those obstacles, though, is a more basic and troubling common thread; many of these state ethics watchdogs sport no real teeth. According to the State Integrity Investigation, state ethics commissions remain woefully ill-equipped to properly investigate complaints and dole out punishment. … 

Robert Smith, chair of the political science department at Kennesaw State University and a leading researcher on the subject, asserts that “the simple existence of ethics commissions is rather important.” The way Smith sees it, merely having an ethics commission sends a message. “We have an office with the right to police, protect and preserve the notion of integrity,” he says. “We have a public integrity mechanism in place.”

Smith noted that the panels are able to take definitive action — issue fines, write advisory opinions, subpoena documents — that may deter politicians from abusing power. Indeed, ethics commissions in 36 states have the ability to independently initiate investigations. In 37 states, commissions can impose penalties for violations. Twenty-eight states boast commissions that have jurisdiction over all three branches of government, rather than fragmenting enforcement power in separate agencies. 





A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit