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VIEWPOINT: Oversight in Delaware legislature is overdue

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It seems every week we read new headlines about a Delaware politician engaged in a scandal that puts their own interests above those of the people, often with no consequences. The recent failures of either chamber to take serious action with two legislators, who were both arrested and charged with assault, is a true reflection of the lack of accountability within our state government. Delaware’s laws surrounding transparency and accountability are notoriously weak. Rankings from the Center for Public Integrity gave Delaware an F for our lack of laws and systems deterring public corruption, placing us 48th among the 50 states. And it shows.

Kathleen Rutherford | PHOTO COURTESY OF A BETTER DELAWARE

Currently the main authority to combat corruption in the state is the Delaware Public Integrity Commission. This is a seven-member committee (with one current vacancy) that only employs one licensed attorney. The core focus of this group is to ensure that ethics laws are properly administered for the executive branch, and financial disclosure laws/expense reporting laws are followed by all three branches. While this group should be capable of monitoring government behavior, their 2020 report indicates that they only conducted two investigations over the entire year. To make matters worse, the committee exempted itself from its oversight, making it extremely difficult to monitor its efficiency. Delaware is said to operate on an “honor system” in regards to public ethics laws, meaning most violations are not looked into unless an outside source informs the committee.

Having a committee that is not actively searching for misconduct is a hinderance to Delawareans since this makes individuals believe that they will not be prosecuted for their misconduct unless they are caught red-handed. The solution for this would be to model our system after other states that are better suited to fight corruption. While still having room for improvement, Alaska ranked 1st in the nation in state integrity. This was largely due to easily accessible political finance data, and strict ethics rules that are properly enforced on the executive and legislative branches. The main duty of the Alaska Select Committee on Legislative Ethics is to uphold the Alaska Legislative Ethics Act and maintain trust in the institute of government. This act does a better job of outlining specifically how these ethical breaches should be handled, something that Delaware Title 29 does not do.

The people of Delaware need an independent advocate and guardian of legislative ethics in the form of an Office of Legislative Ethics. This commission should be made up of respected members of the community with expertise in law and legislative ethics who volunteer to serve.

The OLE should be funded sufficiently to support a staff capable of performing rigorous investigations, and unlike current law, anyone should be able to file a complaint anonymously to protect and encourage whistleblowers.

The public also deserves more insight into the personal finances and business interests of individual legislators to assess potential conflicts of interest. The forms currently used provide little meaningful information and are not readily accessible to the public. That needs to change.

We also need to reform our freedom of information law to broaden public access to important records and keep public officials honest and accountable. First and foremost, we need to close the loophole in the public records law that is designed to keep legislators’ official correspondence secret. Executive branch and municipal officials are subject to our open records laws, but members of the legislature conveniently exempt themselves.

Our state government is also rife with conflicts of interest. Many legislators moonlight with organizations that receive funding from the state or get hired by those organizations after having played roles in securing funding for them.

Any legislator who works for an organization that receives a significant amount of their funding from the state should not be allowed to sit on the budget writing committees or those that author the Bond Bill or Grants-in-Aid bill. We should also have a cooling off period that prohibits these organizations from hiring legislators until after they have been out of office for two years.

Finally, the pandemic showed that we can provide more visibility into the inner workings of state government through online streaming. Every committee hearing and floor activity should be video streamed and archived so members of the public can see with their own eyes what goes on in the statehouse.

Transparency and accountability must be key tenets of state government to deter corruption and generate more confidence in our political system. Delaware does not live up to the high bar we must set for our public officials – not even close. These proposals would be an excellent step forward in reminding politicians that they work for us.

Kathleen Rutherford serves as executive director of A Better Delaware.

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