Democracy Decoded: Season 3, Episode 6 Transcript

Keeping an Eye on Ethics

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Simone Leeper: Growing up, my parents talked a lot about civic engagement. We listened to NPR every day on the way to school, and watched TV news during dinner. We watched the State of the Union and presidential debates as a family. I remember debating my social studies teacher in class after one of the State of the Unions. We were going back and forth about the policies brought up the night before. We talked about immigration, which I had strong feelings about since my mom and her family immigrated to the US from Colombia when she was a child, and climate change policies, which I was passionate about because I saw how relevant they would be to my generation. I was in sixth grade.

In every election. My parents made voting a family affair too. We'd all walk to the church in our neighborhood in St. Petersburg, Florida, the same church where I learned to ride a bike in the parking lot, and I'd watch them cast their ballot. When I was finally old enough to vote, I wanted to cast my first ballot at that church. My college gave us a few days off around election day, so I flew home to Florida and made that familiar walk to the church to vote for the first time. It felt amazing. Finally being able to walk into that polling place and 

Leeper: Reinforcing the public's trust in the federal government has been an uphill battle for politicians for at least half a century.

President Richard Nixon: I welcome this kind of examination because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook.

Leeper: That of course, is President Richard Nixon speaking in 1973 as investigations into the Watergate scandal were unfolding. Watergate was a wake-up call for many Americans. And although that incident was under the purview of the Department of Justice, it became clear that more oversight of government was needed, not just at the federal level, but all the way down to the state and local level as well. This bolstered the movement already brewing in states and cities across the country to set up local Ethics Commissions, independent bodies designed to hold government officials accountable, bring political wrongdoings to light, and provide voters with more transparency, and many of these Ethics Commissions have been busy since they were first created.

Jeremy Farris: I'll start with what I think is our biggest success in the dark money arena.

Leeper: That's Jeremy Ferris, the executive director of the New Mexico State Ethics Commission. States like New Mexico have created Ethics Commissions to help the public once again trust in government and to crack down on some pretty unsavory campaign practices.

Farris: We came across an organization that was funding campaign advertisements that were supporting conservative candidates in Democratic Senate Primary a few years ago, and the advertisements were funded by a group called the Council for a Competitive New Mexico.

Leeper: The problem was that the organization had not appropriately filed campaign disclosures with the Secretary of State's Office regarding who was funding the advertisements. Something smelled fishy to the commissioners. They jumped into action and authorized a lawsuit against the Council for a Competitive New Mexico.

Farris: We filed that suit, and it turned out that the money behind the advertisements supporting the conservative Democratic senators attacking the Progressive challengers, it was the electrical utility, the Power Utility in New Mexico, the largest corporation in New Mexico, and they were the entity that was behind the advertisements.

Leeper: Without an Ethics Commission, voters in New Mexico would've had no way to know that a power utility, an organization with its own interests, was behind the campaign ads they were seeing. But because the commission was able to bring this information to light, New Mexico voters could then make a more informed decision at the ballot box. In New Mexico and other states and municipalities across the country, Ethics Commissions are committed to educating officials on their ethical responsibilities, engaging and forming the public, and enforcing the rules against those who violate ethics laws. 

I am Simone Leeper, and this is Democracy Decoded, a podcast where we examine our government and discuss innovative ideas that could lead to a stronger, more transparent, accountable and inclusive democracy. In this episode, we focus on the importance of state and local Ethics Commissions in fighting corruption, and explore why without independent oversight corruption can hinder the ability of everyday citizens to have their voices heard in the democratic process. Ethics Commissions in the US are most effective at the state level, so it's no surprise that voters and legislators oftentimes face immense pressure from wealthy special interests who oppose their creation.

Kedric Payne: There are so many attempts to influence the government, whether it's by government contractors or special interests.

Leeper: That's Kedric Payne, vice President General Counsel and Senior Director of Ethics at Campaign Legal Center.

Payne: And to influence the government, they use various tools including campaign contributions, gifts and well-connected lobbyists. And the Ethics Commissions are faced with enforcing those rules to make sure that there's not undue influence by these outside forces.

Leeper: Campaign finance and conflict of interest laws and regulations help everyday voters understand who is trying to influence their decisions and the priorities of those seeking and holding office. But laws and rules need enforcement in order to mean anything, and those expected to follow them need clear guidance on how to do so, this is where Ethics Commissions come in. Ethics Commissions serve a vital role in democracy by upholding transparency laws and rules that are put in place to preserve the public's trust in government.

Delaney Marsco: It's not an easy job and it doesn't make you popular, but it is an essential job, and it's one that most people have the luxury of not really knowing it exists.

Leeper: That's Delaney Marsco, Senior legal Counsel for Ethics at Campaign Legal Center. Delaney has always been called to work that holds the powerful accountable.

Marsco: My first job out of Law School and the job that I was working on before I started working at CLC was a job in Financial Crime Compliance at a big bank.

Leeper: Then she felt drawn to more directly serve voters in our democracy.

Marsco: I wanted to be able to do that in a way that really served the public's interest. That's what got me so excited about working in the Government Ethics field, and that's also why Government Ethics is such an important field. It's a relatively small group of people making sure that public officials are serving the public's interest, not the interest of wealthy political donors or their own bottom line, or lobbyists or people who used to pay their salary. It's a group of people making sure that the most powerful people in this country are using that power for the public's good.

Leeper: So how do ethics commissions help to hold government officials accountable?

Marsco: I like to think of the work of state and local Ethics Commissions as falling into three main buckets. The first is transparency.

Leeper: Delaney says, "Commissions keep an eye on political campaigns and people running to be elected officials."

Marsco: Whether it's who donated to their campaigns, what stocks they hold, who's lobbying them and why, Ethics Commissions are often responsible for collecting that information and making it public.

Leeper: Ethics Commissions often help establish online records of public disclosure statements so that voters can make informed decisions about candidates and issues.

Marsco: The reason voters in Los Angeles, for example, can see independent expenditure trends in city elections on a dashboard with just a few clicks is because the LA City Ethics Commission has put a lot of time and a lot of effort into developing a tool that makes that transparency possible.

Leeper: The second focus of the work of Ethics Commissions is to serve as resources for elected officials. Commissioners advise them on the law so they understand their disclosure requirements and other responsibilities they have.

Marsco: And they'll have avenues for public officials to get real-time advice, email, hotlines, things like that. So in that way, Ethics Commissions really act as the first line of defense in preventing violations of the public's trust from occurring in the first place.

Leeper: Lastly, having the authority and the independence to enforce consequences for these violations is at the heart of Ethics Commissions.

Marsco: Ethics Commissions are often responsible for the enforcement mechanisms that happen on the state and local level when ethics violations do inevitably occur.

Leeper: Ethics Commissions can receive complaints from the public or from other government employees who witness wrongdoing. They often have the power to investigate the alleged violations and potentially impose penalties or refer the case to other authorities. In states and municipalities without Ethics Commissions, elected officials are responsible for regulating their own activities and following what are basically their own handcrafted transparency and accountability rules. This doesn't always work so well.

Marsco: In Michigan, there's not an independent Ethics Commission, and so in the last gubernatorial election, the candidates released what could very loosely be called financial disclosures, but it was whatever they felt like disclosing at the time. The reason that we have Ethics Commissions and that we have clear ethics laws that are enforced by Ethics Commissions is so there's a standard so that everyone understands what they have a right to know about public officials, about our leaders, and then they have a place that they can go to get that information. And in Michigan, they didn't have that, and so it's very bizarre to have an elected official or to have a candidate just decide themselves what they think the public has a right to know.

Leeper: Looking again at New Mexico, Jeremy says that the way their Ethics Commission works is unique, and that's likely due to the fact that the state was a late enactor of this practice. Because New Mexico didn't establish an ethics commission until 2020, they were able to learn from the successes and failures of other states' models. The first thing that New Mexico got right, their commission is a part of their state's constitution, meaning one governor or a majority in the legislature cannot get rid of it.

Farris: The commission has a constitutional presence and will be part of New Mexico State government for long into the foreseeable future.

Leeper: The commission is also financially independent from any other governmental agency. Jeremy says this has been integral to their work, establishing trust and transparency with voters.

Farris: We've had success in a string of dark money cases where we were apprised of an organization's political advertisements and their failure to disclose the source of the funding for those political campaigns.

Leeper: Without financial independence, New Mexico's Ethics Commission would likely have a harder time bringing this corruption to light.

LeeAnn Pelham: There are so many ways that these agencies provide accountability, and I think work hard to make sure that the voter's voice is in the room when important decisions happen.

Leeper: That's Pelham. She was the executive director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission until January 2023. Prior to her work in San Francisco, LeeAnn spent two decades working at and then running the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. A commission born in the wake of a scandal. In 1989 reporting revealed that longtime LA Mayor Tom Bradley had a considerable conflict of interest with a bank that resulted in a major abuse of power. Bradley had been hired as a paid advisor by Far East National Bank while still in office as mayor. He then ordered the city treasurer to deposit $2 million of taxed funds into the bank. 

Within the next few months, the scandals involving Bradley and his associates began to pile up. There were multiple investigations looking into violations of city campaign contribution limits and incidents of insider trading. In response to all of these allegations, the voters of LA passed a ballot measure to create a local Ethics Commission.

Pelham: The commission created its citizens' panel to establish recommendations for how Los Angeles should create stronger laws so that they could be enforced locally, and that local machinery of government would help set the expectation in a better way about what we expect from public officials.

Leeper: The practice soon spread North. In 1993, San Francisco modeled their voter proposed Ethics Commission on the work of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. For LeeAnn, establishing both of these Ethics Commissions to provide transparency and accountability for voters has been an exciting test of what is possible in a democracy.

Pelham: What I found most enjoyable and fascinating about the work both in San Francisco and in Los Angeles was the opportunity to put the theory to practice. So the theory that citizens could have a say in their government, that we could experiment with new things like ethics reforms at a local level, administrative enforcement to make sure that it was swift and sure, and really holding elected officials accountable and government officials accountable.

Leeper: LeeAnn says, "Making campaign disclosure statements available to voters has been one of the biggest accomplishments of the Ethics Commissions."

Pelham: The importance there is making sure that, that information is accessible in a way that the public wants it and that the public understands it. We don't want to have just dusty file cabinets now be remote online places where people have to still hunt too hard to find this information. So the job of making it meaningful, relevant, accessible, that has been one of the most extraordinary pieces of work I think local Ethics Commissions in California have done in both San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Leeper: Of course, there are a lot of challenges that these commissions still face especially when it comes to enforcement. Ethics Commissions are under pressure from a diverse group of stakeholders that includes government officials and employees, lobbyists and, of course, the general public. Plus expectations are high for the Ethics Commissions to step in where other government entities have failed.

Pelham: When the voters created the Ethics Commissions, I think the impetus behind those efforts seemed to be very much tethered to the idea that those who are currently on duty, the district attorneys or the city attorneys, or others who were tasked with investigating breaches of conduct at the local level weren't doing it to the voter satisfaction.

Leeper: LeeAnn says, "One solution to strengthening the enforcement branch of the Ethics Commissions is for the commissioners to act more like traffic cops for ethics violations and less like judges deciding a case."

Pelham: When people step out of the boundaries of that sidewalk, someone needs to be there to call them, to give them a traffic ticket and say, "Don't do it again."

Leeper: And this is one effective way Ethics Commissions can approach enforcement.

Pelham: So people aren't generally thrown into prison or into jail because of an ethics violation that an ethics agency finds, but the Ethics Commissions can and do publicly hold officials accountable for their violations.

Leeper: Each year CLC conducts a top 10 report that surveys and interviews different Ethics Commissions across the country to better understand the tools and mechanisms that are establishing transparency in their state. Kedric says, "State and local ethics commissions are sometimes able to hold officials accountable better than the federal government, and they can be more effective in other ways as well."

Payne: Federal government could learn from the state and local Ethics Commissions how to better engage the public, how to make their websites just more user-friendly so that the public is able to see what is actually happening with their elected officials, and to see where the problems are and to see where the answers are.

Leeper: But there are opportunities for improvement, like better using technology to enforce ethics laws. For example, Ethics Commissions could make use of automated software to conduct audits on financial disclosures or catch failures to comply with requirements. Delaney says that using technology to then turn that information into a searchable database could greatly benefit the public.

Marsco: It's one thing to collect a lot of financial disclosure reports and put them in just a list of PDFs on the website and just say, done. It's a whole other thing to have a dashboard where a member of the public can go in and use a advanced search function to find information that they're looking for.

Leeper: With political independence and the right tools, Ethics Commissions can hold politicians accountable, and the more they do this work, the more they build trust with voters. Their successes strengthen our democracy and our faith in our democracy, making it harder for elected officials to break that faith.

Marsco: Ethics Commissions are holding public officials accountable, whether it's in mandatory Ethics trainings or through enforcement actions, or in the many, many transparency efforts that commissions undertake, and the public is not ignorant to that. Ethics Commissions across the country say that people are using their websites, people are calling them, people are filing complaints. The public actually engages with Ethics Commissions. They're not just something that theoretically exists to protect the public's trust. They actually exist and they actually work with and for the public to hold people accountable.

Leeper: Ethics Commissions are a great example of how states and cities have become the laboratories of democracy, and are finding ever new and innovative ways to improve how we govern ourselves. In the next episode, we'll conclude our third season of Democracy Decoded with a closer look at some of the other innovative efforts going on at the state and local level, and how those can help to improve voters' ability to elect candidates of their choice.

Special thanks to Jeremy Ferris, Kedric Payne, Delaney Marsco and Pelham for appearing in this episode. You can find additional background information on the topics discussed in the show notes along with the full transcript of the show. 

Democracy Decoded is produced by LWC Studios for Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization which advances democracy through law at the federal, state and local levels, fighting for every American's right to responsive government and a fair opportunity to participate in and affect the democratic process. You can visit us on the web at 

Democracy Decoded is hosted by me, Simone Leeper, legal counsel for Redistricting at CLC. Leading the production for Campaign Legal Center are Casey Atkins, multimedia manager, and Brendan Quinn, senior Communications Manager for Campaign Finance and Ethics. This podcast episode was produced by Michelle Baker, edited by Paulina Velasco and mixed by Tren Lightburn. Democracy Decoded is a member of the Democracy Group, a network of podcasts dedicated to engaging in civil discourse, inspiring civic engagement and exploring the future of our democracy. You can learn more at