January 10, 2008
CONNECTICUT'S LEGISLATIVE ETHICS COMMITTEE
By: Sandra Norman-Eady, Chief Attorney
You asked (1) for the legislative history of the law that established a Joint Legislative Ethics Committee in 1971, (2) why the committee was abolished, and (3) when the predecessor to the Office of State Ethics (the State Ethics Commission) was established.
In 1971, the legislature enacted a comprehensive code of ethics and established the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee to enforce it. The code applied to members and employees of the General Assembly and Executive Department and employees of the Judicial Department. The law was effective on January 3, 1973.
The legislative history of PA 71-822, An Act Concerning a Code of Ethics, shows that a bipartisan subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee was formed to draft a state ethics code, in part, to “upgrade the public image of the legislature.” (The law was enacted shortly after the Office of Legislative Management was created to upgrade the technical operation of legislative business.) The subcommittee began its work by reviewing the codes of ethics in the 26 states that had adopted such legislation. It appears that the subcommittee modeled the state code after parts of codes from the 26 states and on an existing House rule (HR 18).
The Judiciary Committee favorably reported the bill (SB 548) that became PA 71-822. There is no transcript of any public hearing testimony. The bill passed the House and Senate on a voice vote.
In a major revision of the state's ethics laws the General Assembly abolished the legislative committee in 1977 (PA 77-600) and established the State Ethics Commission. The section of the act establishing the State Ethics Commission was effective on October 1, 1977. The legislative history of PA 77-600, An Act Concerning a Code of Ethics for Public Officials, shows that the legislative committee was abolished in favor of a state commission to increase public trust in government and improve the legislature's image by depoliticizing ethics enforcement. There was no testimony in opposition to the abolishment of the legislative committee.
PA 71-822, AN ACT CONCERNING A CODE OF ETHICS
The act established an eight-member ethics committee, consisting of an equal number of House and Senate members and an equal number of members from the two largest political parties. The four top legislative leaders appointed the members who served for one term.
The committee was charged with enforcing a newly established code of ethics for state public officials and employees, consisting of a list of prohibited activities, a duty to file an annual statement of financial interests, and a duty to report fees and honoraria received for public appearances or speeches. The state public officials and employees subject to the code were members and employees of the General Assembly and Executive Department and employees of the Judicial Department.
The committee was also required to issue advisory opinions upon request.
Ethics Enforcement Proceedings
The committee received written complaints of ethics violations, investigated them, made probable cause determinations, and held hearings in cases where probable cause was found. During investigations, the committee could subpoena witnesses and documents and take evidence under oath or affirmation. At the hearing, witnesses gave testimony under oath or affirmation and parties had a right to counsel and examine and cross examine witnesses. Hearings were closed to the public unless the respondent requested otherwise.
After the hearing, the committee could (1) dismiss the complaint; (2) refer legislators or legislative employees to the General Assembly for impeachment, censure, suspension, or dismissal from employment, as appropriate; or (3) refer Judicial or Executive branch officers or employees to the appropriate appointing authority for such action as the authority deemed appropriate.
The act prohibited certain conduct by members and employees of the General Assembly and Executive Department and employees of the Judicial Department. Specifically, they were prohibited from:
1. having any interest that substantially conflicted with their public duties,
2. accepting a job that impaired independent judgment or required them to disclose confidential information,
3. disclosing or using confidential information for their own pecuniary gain,
4. agreeing to accept employment or a fee to appear before a state regulatory agency, and
5. participating in the enactment or defeat of legislation in which they had an interest unless the interest was disclosed and they indicated their ability to cast fair and objective votes.
Statements of Financial Interests
The act required all state officials and employees, except judges and Executive branch employees subject to the State Personnel Act, to file with the Legislative Ethics Committee a statement of economic interest likely to create conflicts of interest. These officials and employees had to include in the statement a list of the economic interests of their spouse and minor children. The types of information to be filed included:
1. stocks, bonds, realty, and equity or creditor interest in proprietorships, partnerships, or other business entities, but not interest on (a) checking or savings accounts or (b) securities equal to less than $5,000 or representing less than 5% of equity;
2. a list of employers or directorships or offices held; and
3. the names of people who provided income of more than $5,000.
The committee prescribed the frequency with which the statements had to be filed, except officials and employees had to file statements within 30 days after acquiring any listed economic interest.
The statement was treated confidentially and held for up to two years after the filer left office or state employment. The Ethics Committee could, however, inspect the statement after determining that a verified complaint against the filer alleged facts sufficient to constitute an ethics violation.
Individuals subject to the act had to disclose to the committee, within 30 days after receipt, any fees or honoraria they received for any appearance or speech made at any meeting or organization.
PA 77-600, AN ACT CONCERNING A CODE OF ETHICS FOR PUBLIC OFFICIALS
In addition to replacing the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee with a State Ethics Commission, the act substantially revised the rules governing the ethical conduct of state officials and employees. Specifically, it established a generally more specific and comprehensive body of ethical standards; expanded the coverage and requirements applicable to the filing of statements regarding conflicts of interest; limited the class of state officials and employees required to file statements of economic interests; made such statements public; altered the procedures governing investigation of complaints concerning ethics violations; made public the records and proceedings involved in such investigations; and established additional penalties for violation of the ethics laws.
The act took effect on January 1, 1978, except that the section establishing the State Ethics Commission took effect October 1, 1977 and the section relating to the filing of financial statements took effect on January 1, 1979.
LEGISLATIVE HISTORY ON ABOLISHING LEGISLATIVE ETHICS COMMITTEE
When bringing out the bill (HB 1265) that became PA 77-600, Senator Beck stated that the “commission will have no ties with the political process. No member could have served in public office in the past three years. No member can serve on a political committee. No member can be in an organization or association primarily organized to influence legislation or decisions of public agencies” (Sen. Proc., 1977 Sess., p. 3276). Senator Gunther added “anything could be an improvement over what we have right now, because what we have right now is a farce” (Sen. Proc., 1977 Sess., p. 3289).
In the House debate, Representative Hendel stated:
It's important to increase public trust and improve the total image of our state government…. The [bill] should place the Connecticut legislature in its stand towards improving our image among our constituents…. The strength of this bill lies in the oversight powers that will rest with a new ethics commission…. [Commission members] will not be associated with political office or committees. The commission will be independent of the activities it is going to oversee (Ho. Proc., 1977 Sess., pp. 6417-6418).
Representative Hanzalek, House chair of the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee, stated:
The present law, enacted in 1971, eventually turned up with some shortcomings…. For example, because the committee was made up of lawmakers, we were accused of operating under a buddy system…. We were accused as a committee of seeing a conflict of interest and not doing anything about it…. The new commission and new legislation will solve the [problems] (Ho. Proc., 1977 Sess., p. 6421).
The Government Administration and Policy Committee held two public hearing on the ethics proposals that became law. The hearings were held on February 17, 1977 and March 21, 1977. Following are comments by speakers at those hearings:
“The bill removes the responsibility on legislators to request an investigation of a colleague.”
Mark Caplan, Connecticut Citizens Action Group:
“We want to see the commission independent from the legislature. We've seen far too many times on the state and national levels where it is the legislators involved in their process, the pace, the vigilance, leaves much to be desired…. We'd like to see the same kind of independence, staff, and power of investigation as exists with the Freedom of Information Commission.”
William Olds, Connecticut Civil Liberties Union:
“I think to a large degree that there is an old boy's club in the General Assembly and that probably will exist for a long …time in which it's very difficult to reprimand a member of the club.”