Rep. Peggy Gibson (D-22/Huron) is ready to do some serious work in Pierre this session. Responding to her legislative colleagues' inaction on the EB-5 scandal, Rep. Gibson writes in last Wednesday's Plainsman that South Dakota needs an ethics commission to combat both corruption in government and cynicism among the voters:
Did you know that South Dakota has neither comprehensive state ethics laws nor an ethics commission to oversee state officials and bureaucrats? In fact, South Dakota is one of only nine states that lack an ethics commission. Ethics commissions are established in either state statute or the constitution and provide external oversight of ethics laws.
Ethics commissions represent the public's interest and have a similar purpose: to ensure that groups under their jurisdiction follow state ethics laws. As regulatory entities, ethics commissions have various powers and duties, including investigating complaints of violations of ethics laws, providing advisory opinions to individuals under the commission's jurisdiction and offering ethics training. Many commissions have the power to prosecute and/or levy sanctions on the offender [Rep. Peggy Gibson, "News from the House," Huron Plainsman, print edition, 2014.12.03].
The Legislature's Government Operations and Audit Committee proved itself unwilling or unable to investigate and prosecute clear violations of conflict-of-interest rules and state law by players in the EB-5 program. Players throughout state government have been involved in the EB-5 mess, which has evidently made it hard to get any state agency to take the proper action against ethical violations. The Attorney General's office has known about ethical violations associated with EB-5 since 2009 and has refused to take action.
The dereliction of duty our Attorney General and Legislature have shown on EB-5 only heightens cynicism about government. Rep. Gibson cites this 2010 article from the National Conference of State Legislatures to warn us of how cynicism makes our politics worse:
Cynicism discourages qualified people from running for office, promotes a reluctance by members to address unpopular but necessary issues, encourages simplistic institutional reforms such as term limits, and increases the public’s unwillingness to comply with legislative decisions [Karl Kurtz and Brian Weberg, "What Legislatures Need Now," NCSL, July/August 2010].
Rep. Gibson believes a strong ethics commission would dispel cynicism and improve South Dakota politics. Establishing such a commission, however, won't be easy. An ethics commission must come either from the Legislature that doesn't want ethical matters investigated or from an initiating electorate whose cynicism may keep them from believing that such a commission could make a difference.
The difficulty of overcoming both cynicism and corruption makes it all the more necessary for reformers like Rep. Gibson to speak up and fight for an ethics commission.
p.s.: Speaking of integrity, Rep. Gibson should check with the editors at the Plainsman, who appear to have misplaced some vital quotation marks in her column. The passage I quote above properly appears in quotation marks in the print edition I'm reading. However, the sentences before that passage in Rep. Gibson's column also appear mostly verbatim in Kurtz and Weberg 2010 and should also be enclosed in those quotation marks, lest anyone throw a plagiarism flag.