Avoiding the Ethical Pit

Red pen underlining the word "ethics"

If Will Rogers were still alive, he might remind his fellow Oklahoman, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, of the first law of holes: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging." Instead, Pruitt has dug himself deep into an ethical pit. But where Pruitt’s ethical problems began, in state politics in Oklahoma, an effective independent ethics commission could have helped him out of his hole before he dug too deep. [1]


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Scott Pruitt, mired in scandal after scandal for questionable use of federal taxpayer money as EPA Administrator, got his start in state government as an Oklahoma state legislator and then the state's attorney general. Unfortunately, his years serving in elected office in Oklahoma show a similar pattern of using public office for private gain. Pruitt reimbursed himself nearly $65,000 from his state attorney general election campaigns, but filed campaign reports that were so vague that it is impossible to determine whether those payments were lawful. In one case, Pruitt appears to have been double-dipping, asking taxpayers to reimburse expenses that his campaign had already reimbursed. When he was a state senator, Pruitt received a sweetheart deal purchasing an upscale home in Oklahoma City from a telecommunications lobbyist. Yet, the Oklahoma Ethics Commission was not able to deal with these issues effectively, likely due to, at least in part, severe underfunding by the state legislature.[2] Scott Pruitt's work as a public servant shows him digging himself into an ethical pit from the beginning, and he has not stopped since becoming EPA Administrator. (Image credit: SrA Dennis Sloan, USAF)

With the national spotlight on the unethical behavior of public officials, state and local governments are stepping up to improve oversight and, hopefully, stop folks like Scott Pruitt from digging themselves too deep. This November, voters in South Dakota and New Mexico will decide whether to establish statewide independent ethics commissions, and North Dakotans for Public Integrity is gathering signatures to add an anti-corruption amendment to the November ballot that includes a nonpartisan ethics commission. The creation of independent ethics commissions is an important step toward holding public officials accountable and fostering an expectation of ethical behavior at all levels of government because state and local elected office often serves as a training ground for eventual federal officeholders.

Constitutional Amendment W, set to be on the 2018 ballot in South Dakota, includes many of Campaign Legal Center's best practices with respect to independent ethics commissions. After getting burned by their legislators, South Dakotans are going to the ballot box to vote on a state constitutional amendment that establishes an ethics commission. In 2016, South Dakotans voted for the South Dakota Accountability and Anti-Corruption Act, creating a state ethics commission. The following year, legislators rebuked their voters by repealing that measure. The legislators followed up by passing bills with hollow legal requirements, including an ethics commission that specifically did not cover the legislature.

The proposed amendment provides the ethics commission with oversight of elected and appointed officials, judges, and state and local government employees. The proposed amendment also empowers the ethics commission to administer and enforce ethics, lobbying, campaign finance, government contracting, and corruption laws. Finally, the commission would serve an important educational function and be responsible for conducting educational programs for the benefit of the public and those subject to the state’s ethics laws.

New Mexico's proposed constitutional amendment, referred by the legislature to the November ballot, establishes a state ethics commission that may initiate, receive, investigate, and adjudicate ethics and reporting complaints. The commission would oversee state officers and employees of the executive and legislative branches, electoral candidates, lobbyists, and government contractors. In conducting investigations, the commission would also have subpoena power for both witnesses and documents. The commission would also provide advisory opinions on ethics and reporting laws, an important best practice that assists the public and people subject to the ethics and disclosure laws in understanding their responsibilities.

North Dakotans are collecting signatures to get their own ethics commission on the 2018 ballot. Under the proposal, the ethics commission would have the power to regulate transparency, corruption, elections, and lobbying. The commission would have oversight of lobbyists, public officials, and candidates for public office.

Citizens should expect ethical behavior by public officials at every level of government. Whether through advice on prospective conduct or enforcement afterwards, an independent ethics commission is key to stopping officials from digging themselves into ethical holes.


[1] While it’s not a Will Rogers original, the old adage is widely believed to have been quoted by the Cowboy Philosopher.

[2] The Oklahoma Ethics Commission continues to be underfunded enough that the commission is considering suing the legislature for failing to provide adequate funding.

Aaron is a Senior Legal Counsel on CLC's Campaign Finance team.