No matter how you feel about the front-page troubles of Congressman Charles Rangel, New Yorkers should pause to consider how we arrived at this startling moment of transparency and accountability. Why have we not seen a New York State legislator asked to account for ethical lapses in this way? The personal use of state resources, failure to file disclosure forms, compliance with residency requirements, undisclosed conflicts of interest – far too common occurrences in New York State always left unexamined and unexplained.
It was the Office of Congressional Ethics that conducted the long and thorough investigation of Representative Rangel’s affairs, resulting in 4200 pages of evidence including 549 exhibits. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi created the OCE in 2007 in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandals. OCE is comprised of former members of Congress and outside experts in ethics laws. Before the OCE, the only overseer of ethics in the House was the House Ethics Committee, comprised solely of member of Congress, who proved reluctant to bring charges against any fellow lawmaker.
By contrast, New York’s Legislative Ethics Commission, solely responsible for legislative ethics oversight in our state, has never brought a charge against a sitting legislator. Its members consist of legislators and persons appointed by legislative leaders. Meetings of the Legislative Ethics Commission are closed to the public. Minutes are not posted and the Commission is operating without a 9th member, who must be appointed by the leaders of the Assembly and Senate.
Generally, prosecutors and law enforcement officials pursue behaviors that are criminal, and ethics overseers look into self-dealing, conflicts of interest and other improprieties that seriously erode the public trust but might fall short of criminal. While the OCE may not be the best model for New York State going forward, it is a powerful example of how a measure of independent and effective ethics oversight can really shake things up.
We don’t have to look very far for examples of how to build a better ethics overseer: New York State’s Commission on Public Integrity, which watches over executive branch employees and lobbyists, produces a timely annual report and holds regular meetings that are partly open to the public and even webcast. CPI’s professional staff answers questions and issues well-reasoned advisory opinions and regular press releases on its accessible website. There is room for improvement, but it is an expansive vision of oversight. Likewise, OCE is not just the enforcer: its mission includes recognizing where potential problems might lie and heading off them off at the pass. OCE staff pre-clears travel by members of Congress when a third party is footing the bill and provides annual training to every House staff member.
Likewise, House ethics oversight is not limited to investigations: the House Ethics Committee staff pre-clears travel by members of Congress when a third party is footing the bill and provides annual training to every House staff member.