02/05/07 — Legislators try to decipher ethics rules

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Legislators try to decipher ethics rules

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 5, 2007 1:51 PM

With new ethics laws on the books this year, state legislators are scrambling to try to figure out what's permissible and what's not. And while training sessions have been offered to House and Senate members and their staffs -- including those from Wayne and Duplin counties -- as well as to those working in the governor's office, questions still linger.

"I took three hours of a two-hour course," said Rep. Russell Tucker, D-Duplin County. "There were so many questions, it went on for three hours."

The problem, he and his fellow legislators said, is that many of the new rules simply aren't clear and precise.

"Everybody has a different opinion. We're just groping in the dark trying to find our way," Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne County, said. "There's too much confusion."

But that doesn't mean legislators are changing their minds about the need for reform.

"I don't think we're trying to go back to the old way of doing things," Pate said.

Freshman Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir County, agreed.

"I think the public wants the ethics laws and wants us to be ethical," he said. "I want us to be ethical."

But the legislators are worried about how that reform is being implemented.

"This was something done in a four-to-five-week period. It was done in a hurry and was not looked at by everybody else," Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne County, said. "It's going to take time.

"Anytime you pass a new law there are unintended consequences. But I sat in there for two hours and not anybody knew all the ups and downs of it, and that's kind of scary."

But for the most part, Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson County, said, the legislation is good.

A member of the House ethics committee last year, he explained he thought the main focus of the new laws -- campaign financing -- was handled well.

The new rules, which went into effect Jan. 1, spell out exactly how campaign dollars may be spent, require that no cash contributions of more than $50 be made, that no blank checks be issued and that lobbyists not contribute directly to a candidate's campaign.

Many of those rules, he continued, were written in response to the scandals that plagued former House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg County.

The ones that have people most concerned, though, deal with smaller issues such as gifts, particularly items like meals and conferences.

"I think the campaign financing thing is pretty clear," Bell said. "I think the problem we're having right now is with the lobbyists feeling comfortable talking to us.

"There's a lot involved in the rules. I think it might be a little complicated to make sure you follow everything. I think the interpretation might be a little different than what we thought when we drafted them.

"It's going to take some time."

In general, lobbyists are prohibited from paying for meals, trips and other gifts, except for those that are part of educational conferences.

It used to be that if you ran into a lobbyist out in the hall and they wanted to grab a bite to eat, that was no problem, Bell said. Now people are a little more wary of doing that.

"I think everybody's a little nervous. Nobody wants to get caught up in trivial stuff," he said.

Nobody, Pate added, wants to be called in front of the new Ethics Commission on the grounds of violating a rule he didn't understand.

"I just pity the first person that's called before the ethics panel," he said. "I suspect there will be restraint when these issues first come up because there's a lot of confusion.

"But if you're called in and have to bring an attorney, I suspect they would tear it apart."

In the meantime, though, Tucker explained, the tip-toeing between the legislators and the lobbyists is not necessarily a good thing.

"I think the rules were needed and maybe long overdue, but it's like we're scared now to even speak to the lobbyists and the lobbyists' jobs are to inform us of their client's positions. We've got to talk to them."

The impact seems to be hitting the veteran legislators more than the freshmen.

"It's good that I am a first-timer because I don't know any better. I don't know how it used to be," Braxton said. "The biggest thing I see is that there are some gray areas that people aren't sure about, but I think for the most part, everybody wants to do everything right.

"I think the basic thing is to pay your own way."

Other legislators are more concerned about the impact of the new financial disclosure laws, which have become more detailed and include stiffer punishments for misleading information.

"I don't take any gifts and I think people have a right to feel confident that their public servant's judgment is not in any way compromised," Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston County, said. "But that (disclosure) is a burden to put on private citizens."

Both he and Kerr fear that such rules will continue to push average citizens, especially businessmen, out of public service. Those rules also apply to people serving on public boards, such as those that oversee the local community colleges.

Because of such concerns, it's likely the General Assembly will be spending more time this session revising the new rules.

"I don't think there will be any major surgery, just some fine tuning," Kerr said. "I think we'll work through it and I think we'll get it right."

He said the best remedies to the money and ethics problems probably won't be included -- the need for longer terms, shorter sessions and term limits.

"This was something that needed to be addressed, though, and I think this is a good start. We're just going to have to work through it," Kerr said.

Until then, he added, the best thing people can do is be careful and rely on their common sense.

"Ethics is something I think we all know when we cross the line. Now, there's just a lot of new barriers," Kerr said.