For Immediate Release:
Wednesday, January 17, 2024, 11 a.m.
For More Information:
Matt Revel: 302-744-4085
Joe Fulgham: 302-744-4184
House and Senate Republicans are sponsoring three measures requiring lawmakers to be more accountable for their conduct and spending decisions.
Empowering Citizens to Call for Investigations of Alleged Lawmakers’ Wrongdoing
House Bill 261 seeks to establish the Office of Legislative Ethics for the General Assembly to ensure that valid allegations of wrongdoing by state legislators are thoroughly investigated.
While the Delaware House of Representatives and Senate have Ethics Committees, only lawmakers and, in some cases, staff members can file complaints.*
“My bill would allow any member of the public to request an investigation if they believe a legislator has engaged in unethical or illegal conduct** while in office,” said State Rep. Mike Smith (R-Pike Creek Valley). “If lawmakers are truly going to be held accountable, there needs to be an open process where citizens can call them out when they believe something inappropriate has occurred. A system where only lawmakers can initiate an investigation against other lawmakers does nothing to further public trust.”
While the Office of Legislative Ethics would be located within the General Assembly, it would be independent of it. It would be overseen by a board of five appointed volunteers drawn from former elected officials, lawyers, law professors, and other experts. The office would be managed by a full-time executive director who would be required to be an attorney and serve as the agency’s lead Investigator.
When investigations yielded credible results, reports would be sent to the appropriate legislative ethics committee, which would be compelled to act. The office’s report would remain confidential until the committee completed its review and work. Following this, the report would be made public.
Rep. Smith said his proposal is similar to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) – an independent, non-partisan entity established in 2008 and charged with reviewing misconduct allegations against U.S. House of Representatives members.
House Bill 261 was filed over the summer after the legislature had ended its 2023 session. The measure is pending action in the House Administration Committee.
Barring Organizations Employing Budget-Writing Legislators from Receiving State Money
It is not uncommon for state legislators to be employed by non-profit agencies or private sector companies. Sometimes, these legislators also sit on influential committees crafting key spending bills.
State Rep. Bryan Shupe (R-Milford South) will soon introduce a bill to prohibit any non-government organization employing a legislator who helps write the state capital budget or the Grants-in-Aid Bill from receiving money through these bills.
“Most people probably think it’s already illegal for organizations employing members of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) or Joint Capital Improvement Committee (Bond Bill) from receiving money in the bills these lawmakers write,” Rep. Shupe said. “Surprisingly, this is not the case.
“At the very least, a company or non-profit agency having a member of the JFC or the Bond Bill Committee on their payroll, then getting public money through the bill their employee helped draft, creates the appearance of impropriety,” Rep. Shupe said. “My bill will eliminate a situation that dances on the edge of a conflict of interest and undermines public faith in the legislature.”
Bill Would Increase Scrutiny of Appropriations to Hundreds of Community Organizations
Most Delawareans are likely unaware of the annual Grants-in-Aid (GIA) Bill, but they all have a stake in it.
One of the ‘money bills’ created and passed by the legislature annually, the GIA appropriation allocates taxpayer money to assist hundreds of not-for-profit organizations performing work helping Delawareans. The current measure contains nearly $72 million in total awards. Volunteer fire companies, senior centers, and veteran and youth groups are among the recipients.
“The Joint Finance Committee has historically crafted the Grants-in-Aid package,” said State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn (R-Georgetown). “However, they’ve always been understandably preoccupied with writing the multi-billion state operating budget, leaving little time to review GIA applicants or examine expenditures. As a result, there is less accountability of this spending than there should be.”
House Bill 40, sponsored by State Sens. Pettyjohn and Bryant Richardson (R-Seaford), would create the six-member Grants-in-Aid Committee to review each GIA applicant’s performance, financial stability, and efficiency. The committee would also require applicants to provide information and financial disclosures, giving lawmakers better opportunities to evaluate and provide oversight to the investment of taxpayer money.
“This is a bipartisan bill that has twice passed the House,” Sen. Richardson said. “Last March, this measure cleared that chamber without a dissenting vote. It’s been in the Senate Executive Committee ever since. We will renew our efforts to urge the Democrat legislators controlling that committee to release it and place it on the Senate agenda for action. Since the House Democrats and Republicans agree on the merits of this bill, we think it’s worthy of consideration by our chamber.”
* House Rules and Senate Rules allow legislative staff members to file a complaint in cases alleging sexual harassment.
** Unethical or illegal acts could include, but not be limited to, allegations of bribery, conflicts of interest, disorderly behavior, and actions bringing the House or Senate into disrepute.