During my short tenure as a legislative staffer, I have come to realize that ethics is sort of an enigma in the California Legislature. We talk a lot about them and how important they are. They even go as far as to provide us ethics training, so that we can know what is appropriate and what is not.
But when it comes down to putting these rules into practice, one rule trumps them all. It’s kind of the Golden Rule of Politics “He who has the gold, makes the rules!”
That is why it doesn’t surprise me to learn that the only standing committee in the California Senate with no members assigned to it is the Senate Ethics Committee.
The Capitol Weekly wrote the following on this subject:
Snicker no more. The Senate Ethics Committee is back after nearly a decade–thanks to Don Perata.
It’s not that Senate Ethics went away, exactly. The committee has been staffed with attorneys since its creation in 1991.
But after Senator John Burton took over as Senate president pro tem in 1998, legislators were no longer assigned to it.
The committee carried on with the bulk of its work without them: giving ethics training to members and lobbyists, fielding questions from members offices and–occasionally–investigating complaints of ethical violations. It was less of a bona fide standing committee than an arm of the Senate Rules Committee.
But that wasn’t the intent of the legislators who created the committee.
Senate Ethics was born in 1991 partly out of frustration with a Joint Ethics Committee, which was seen as ineffective. “It was hard to get people to show up, especially on the Assembly side,” said David Roberti, the Senate president pro tem from 1980 to 1994. Roberti authored the Senate resolution that created the Senate Ethics Committee.
But the committee also owed its existence to a real ethical crisis in the Legislature, which occurred on Roberti’s watch: The FBI’s “Shrimpscam” sting of the late ’80s, which caught some state legislators on tape taking bribes.
“That wasn’t the only element, but it was certainly fresh in my mind at the time,” said Roberti.
But over the last 10 years, the committee has kept a low profile. “It doesn’t really do anything, unless a complaint it made,” said Gregory Schmidt, secretary of the Senate.