Republican Senate President Tom Niehaus introduced what he calls an “Ethics Reform Bill” in the lame duck session of the Ohio Legislature.

Here is what you need to know:

  1. The bill does essentially nothing.
  2. The bill ignores some long-needed ethics reforms in state government.

What does the bill do?

Mostly, the bill makes some minor tweaks in the definition of a lobbyist and changes the amount of benefit a public official can receive from lobbyists.  Per the Cincinnati Enquirer:

The legislation redefines who is a lobbyist and how much that person can spend on a public official, generally increasing the amount. For example, it raises from $75 to $250 the amount a public official can accept from a lobbyist for expenditures. Anything over $250 must be returned within 60 days. Also, lobbyists will pay $10 more ($25 to $35) to register with the state. Among other provisions the bill increases from $1,000 to $5,000 the minimum debt owed that must be reported on financial disclosure forms.

The Bill also makes some minor changes in the filing of financial disclosure forms by public officials.

Perhaps a good argument can be made that the dollar limits in the current law – which were set years ago — should be increased.

Then again . . .

The bill seems to eliminate the requirement that a public official disclose the receipt of gifts.  (See struck out section 102.07(A)(7)).  Instead, the bill says that only gifts over $100 must be disclosed if “incurred in connection with the person’s official duties.”  This means that Republican Governor Bob Taft wouldn’t have been required to disclose the golf outings with Tom Noe (worth about $140) that led to his conviction on misdemeanor charges.  And we shouldn’t forget a bunch of other gifts valued Taft failed to disclose – a failure he couldn’t be prosecuted for under the terms of his plea agreement, something the head of the Ethics Commission described as “frustrating.”

It’s not just Taft who would have benefitted from the new laws.  The new law might not have been a problem for Republican Richard Collins, the former head of the Highway Patrol (who a little birdie tells us plans to seek elective office).  Collins faced ethics allegations in connection with his failure to disclose meals he received paid for by a state highway patrol “activities fund.

As Homer Simpson says, “everything looks bad if you remember it.”

Niehaus told the Dispatch that this was a “reform” and would lead to more “transparency.”  I guess we have a different definition of the word reform.  We like this one:  “a: to put or change into an improved form or condition; b: to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses.”

We can suggest some real changes in Ohio’s ethics laws that would improve things.  .

First, why not do something about groups like ALEC.

As we reported back in May, ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is a way for corporate and conservative interests to influence legislation in many states, including Ohio.  But because of a loophole in Ohio’s Ethics laws, ALEC is able to funnel money to legislators through “scholarships” for travel to places like New Orleans, and Scottsdale.  The loophole is found in Revised Code Section 102.07(A)(8).  This loophole excludes from disclosure “expenses for travel to meetings or conventions of a national or state organization to which any state agency, including, but not limited to, any legislative agency . . . pays membership dues.”

Ohio Legislatures don’t have to report this free travel (and meals, etc . . .) because legislators pay a $100 membership fee to ALEC, and the General Assembly pays a $1000 membership fee.  This modest membership fee is, really, the only thing separating the legal activities of ALEC from felony bribery charges when Legislators agree to introduce ALEC model legislation around the same time as a donation of a few thousand dollars was received from ALEC’s scholarship fund.

Second, make the Office of the Inspector General a truly non-partisan institution.  Currently, the Inspector General is appointed by the Governor.  The current Inspector General seems to spend most of his time chasing trivial matters.  (Read here and here, for example.)  And when he does take on a big issue – like allegations that Kasich abused his power to influence Republican State Central Committee races, the report is, as Joseph notes, essentially a whitewash. (Joe was totally right on this.  We ran the report by an experienced former law enforcement investigator who said, “if the IG is half the investigator he promotes himself to be he is either lying about his abilities or rather incompetent as an investigator.”).  State government would be improved greatly if the Inspector General were appointed by a bi-partisan panel of legislators, as investigations would be free of allegations of partisan bias.

(Regular readers know that this is also the moment when we are obligated to ask:  Where the F*!@ is the Coingate Report?  Asking that question is kinda like our Freebird, it seems at times.)

We have lots of other great ideas.  And we are pretty confident Plunderbund readers have some good suggestions for real ethics reforms, as well – the comment board is wide open.  What should happen is that instead of a fake “reform” bill being pushed through a lame duck legislative session, a real reform bill, one that makes things, you know, better, should be introduced in the next session and given a full hearing.

Legislators, you know how to find us.  We’d be thrilled to work with you, and we promise not to give you anything you have to disclose on your forms!