Independent Ethics Commission: So Much for Political Ethics in South Dakota

The voters of South Dakota voted for an independent ethics commission and it passed. As part of the package that went along with the commission were also provisions to put limits on campaign finance and lobbying access. An independent ethics

Mount Rushmore in South Dakota

commission? It was music to my ears.

The governor of the state, Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) repealed the bill the voters of the state wanted! The politicians said that the voters were tricked into approving the ethics package which created the independent ethics commission. Here is the funny part: they were able to reject it under something called the “state of emergency,” provision. My ears are now ringing!

No politics and the Independent Ethics Commission

Though some media claim the defeat of this measure was due to the Republicans, as someone who has reported on ethical abuses and scams by all sorts of politicians, I have no doubt if the shoe were on the other foot…and in fact, the original bill had the support of both Democrats and Republicans. In fact, here is an interesting quote from state Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton, a Democrat:

“Did I agree with everything in Initiative Measure 22? Probably not, but I think it’s our job to respect the will of the voters and to fix pieces that may be considered unconstitutional.”

Ah yes, “unconstitutional.” Never before in my lifetime have I heard the term unconstitutional tossed around with such careless abandon. Everyone, it seems, has become an expert in constitutional law. What about the will of the voters?

While I understand that the bill had a lot of opposition from a conservative lobbying group and politicians who said Measure 22 was again – unconstitutional, and that it should start from scratch, no one seems in much of a rush to draft a new proposal. I might add that despite how some politicians have characterized the South Dakota as being ethically “squeaky clean,” the state apparently experienced two serious ethics scandals in 2016 alone.

Politicians have a real fear of independent ethics investigations, campaign finance reform, lobbying restrictions, term limits and any other sneak peaks into the inner machinery of Congress. Left or Right, over the past decades Americans have consistently characterized the U.S. Congress as being untrustworthy. In other words, we won’t like them and we don’t trust them.

What amazes me as an ethics expert is how stories such as these are so highly politicized by the print and electronic media who have a stake in the process. Ethics “is,” it is not a Republican or Democratic agenda item. When the pendulum swings, and it surely will, will the same media outlets who are outraged at the repeal of Measure 22 now, also be outraged when “their” party assumes office? I tend to doubt it.

Ethics cannot be a football that is tossed around until it is fumbled by the loser. This is why the idea of an independent ethics commission was so appealing to me. “Independent” implies that Republican, Democrat or even third party ethical violations, must be pursued with equal vigor – and without regard to media pressure.  Again, the reason for an independent ethics commission!

The Creation of the Political Class

Sadly, issues such as ethical fraud in government, term limits, lobbying limits and campaign finance reform have not received the attention they deserve, despite the fact that politicians are ultimately responsible to us, the voting public. There is a wall placed around such issues, and the result is often corruption, abuse and suspicion of the insular political class.

The only thing to curtail political abuses is ethics training. As we have seen in this instance, politicians seem to fear independent ethical review. The next best thing is independent ethical training, periodically refreshed to those who we pay to serve us.

South Dakota is hardly unique in creating its political class. They had an opportunity to be great and instead they have opted for politics, the independent ethics commission and will of the people be damned.

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Posted by Chuck Gallagher in Governmental Ethics and tagged , , , .

1 Responses to Independent Ethics Commission: So Much for Political Ethics in South Dakota

  1. knoxtabb: November 5, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    Well said Chuck!

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