Independent Ethics Commissions

Man speaking into microphone at a meeting

“Our principles are clear: that government service is a noble calling and public trust.” — President George H.W. Bush

A strong independent ethics agency, or “ethics commission,” ensures that government is representative, responsive, and accountable. 

Elected officials often have personal interests that conflict with their duty to serve the public. Government officials may be influenced to make decisions based on private interests. Responding to those concerns, ethics commissions can require disclosure of conflicts of interest and ensure officials set aside private interests in favor of the public trust. Ethics commissions can enforce ethics, transparency, lobbying, and campaign finance laws—making sure officials know they are accountable for the integrity of our government institutions. 

Ethics Toggle

An ethics commission must be independent of the officials it oversees and structured to take action in order to build trust with the public. For example, an ethics commission overseeing legislators must be reasonably free of interference from the legislature. Another pitfall to avoid is partisan gridlock: an ethics commission must be structured to pursue ethics enforcement regardless of partisan disagreement. Key features can be built into the structure of the commission to avoid these pitfalls: 

  • Empowering a commission chair to set the commission’s enforcement agenda 

  • Giving the commission an odd number of commissioners to avoid deadlocked votes 

  • Prohibiting commissioners from holding employment that conflicts with their public duty  

An effective ethics commission also requires a dedicated staff to do the underlying work of the commission and commissioners who, themselves, do not have financial or political interests impairing their decision-making or credibility. 

State Highlight: Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission 

The Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission (KLEC) was created in the aftermath of a bribery scandal involving horse-racing legislation, state legislators, and lobbyists. State law specifies that KLEC, charged with overseeing the state legislature and lobbyists, is an independent authority. KLEC’s nine commissioners may not, themselves, be public officials, lobbyists, or the close relative of a public official or lobbyist while serving as a commissioner. Commissioners are also prohibited from holding a party office, fundraising for or contributing to political candidates, or otherwise participating in political campaigns. These restrictions ensure that a commissioner’s decisions do not appear influenced by private or political interests. 

In a democracy, the people must have confidence that laws are applied fairly and consistently, and that those who break the law are held accountable.  

Providing ethics guidance—like advising public officials on conflicts of interest or training government employees on local ethics laws—helps people recognize ethical problems and proactively avoid them. For example, the Ohio Ethics Commission, overseeing the state’s executive branch, conducts approximately 200 training sessions each year. These services help instill a culture of accountability in government: 

  • Educating and training public officials and employees 

  • Providing legal advice on specific ethics matters for public officials and employees 

  • Developing legislative recommendations to improve the law 

When education, training, and advice don’t work, ethics commissions must be empowered to investigate and determine potential violations of the law. Giving an ethics commission the power to investigate and enforce violations of the law further builds public confidence in the system of accountability. Important commission powers include: 

  • Receiving and evaluating complaints from anyone 

  • Conducting audits, investigations, and hearings 

  • Disclosing enforcement actions and the results of those actions to the public 

State Highlights 

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission is empowered by state law to receive complaints from any member of the public or open an investigation on its own, conduct hearings, audits, and investigations, and subpoena witnesses and documents. Importantly, when the Commission makes the decision to pursue an investigation or dismiss a complaint, the Commission must make that information public, ensuring that the enforcement process is transparent. Furthermore, every two years, the Commission is required to report to the Oregon Legislative Assembly any recommendations for changes in the ethics laws, ensuring that those laws stay up to date and the Commission can continue effective enforcement.  

The Grassroots Movement That Created North Dakota's Ethics Commission

"The more we learned about our broken political system, the more determined we became to take it back."


If you have questions about this policy proposal, we'd love to hear from you! Just e-mail us. 

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