Undercurrents: Ethics Commission Would Draw the Lines for Public Officials

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community. This is the second in a two-part series about public ethics.

Under the ethics policy for the U.S. House of Representatives, members can accept a free lunch as long as it isn’t valued at more than $50. It’s okay to attend a free reception as long as only “reasonable hors d’oeuvres and refreshments” are served, but not a full meal. A single gift from someone who is not a lobbyist is ok, as long as it’s valued at less than $50, and if there’s more than one gift from a single donor, their combined value may not exceed $100 in a single year.

In Illinois, any state legislator “should avoid accepting or retaining an economic opportunity which presents a substantial threat to his independence of judgment.”

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New York State law provides that every county, city, town and village adopt its own Code of Ethics for its government officials that must include, though it is not limited to the disclosure of:

– Interest in legislation before the local governing body;
– Holding investments in conflict with official duties;
– Private employment in conflict with official duties;
– Future employment (that could be in conflict with official duties).

Moreover, the state law authorizes the governing body of each county, city, town and village in New York to create its own Ethics Board which, among other things, can resolve local ethics issues.

Prohibitions and restrictions on government officials are detailed in scores of ethics statutes across the nation. Some are widely disseminated. New York, for example, publishes a pamphlet; Congress maintains a website that includes not only the regulations but a list of frequently asked questions about the Ethics Code.

Former Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone says, “We’re the only place in the U.S. that doesn’t have one.”

Malone was inspired to offer legislation to create a Virgin Islands Code of Ethics, he said, by his earlier experience serving in the V.I. Delegate to Congress’ office.

He was familiar with federal rules governing every aspect of the job, he said, including mandates to maintain a wide gap between politicking and governmental work. But when he joined the local Legislature, he found there were no such rules. “I noticed a total breakdown in the behavior” between the federal and the territorial lawmaking bodies.

The Congressional website contains a memorandum to all members that was issued last summer by the House Committee on Ethics and dubbed “Top 10 Things to Remember about Campaign Activities.”

Number one is, “You may not conduct campaign activities in official buildings, using official resources, or on House time.”

In the Virgin Islands, the lines between constituent work and electioneering are blurred at best, with some offices sporting campaign posters, some staff actively organizing fundraisers, and constituents occasionally dropping by the Legislature building to pay for tickets to a political rally.

In one case, Malone recalled, a former senator was scrupulous about not using government-owned materials such as copy paper for political purposes, but thought nothing of holding campaign committee meetings in a legislative office.

“Nobody is (totally) innocent of violating these things in the Virgin Islands,” he said. “But if we’re serious about dealing with corruption” we need to put ethics regulations into law.

The Virgin Islands does have a Conflict of Interest statute, but not an Ethics Code, which typically covers less egregious offenses.

Malone introduced legislation last year to create an Ethics Commission, but it died in committee, a victim of overbroad language, the lack of a funding source and confusion over jurisdiction. As originally drafted, the bill would have placed the commission under the V.I. Justice Department; in hearings on the bill, Malone suggested he might amend it to place the commission under the V.I. Inspector General’s Office.

The ethics law would not be limited to campaign regulations, but would cover all sorts of areas, including job favoritism and the use of government vehicles and other public resources, even government travel.

V.I. Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt is on record supporting the concept, but did not support the bill. For one thing, he said, the commission would need to be independent; if it were under his office, for instance, it could hardly investigate alleged conflicts involving him.

Although he’s no longer in office, Malone said recently that he still would like to see an Ethics Commission created. He has ideas on ways to amend the proposal to make it more practical and more palatable.

“I’ll work with a senator who’s interested,” he said, adding that he believes several of the current lawmakers do indeed support the idea.

As Malone envisions the commission, it would have teeth that other, current regulations lack. Fifty years ago an executive order by then Gov. Ralph Paiewonsky set out regulations governing conduct of executive branch employees. The courts have their own rules, as does the Legislature. But all of those can change with changes in administration.

What’s needed, Malone says, is a Code of Ethics developed by an independent body, applied to all three branches of government and written into law.

If the law is ever drafted, it might make use of existing language already in the Conflict of Interest Statute that was passed in the early 1970s:

“Declaration of Policy: The Legislature finds and declares: a.) that no responsibility of government is more fundamental than the responsibility of maintaining the highest standards of ethical behavior by those who conduct the public business; b.) that the people have the right to expect adherence by those who conduct the public business to the principle that all officials must act with the utmost integrity, absolute impartiality and loyalty to the public interest; c.) that whereas the basis of effective democratic government is public confidence, that confidence is endangered when ethical standards falter or appear to falter

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