Ethics bill clears Miss. Senate committee

Published 8:15 pm Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A comprehensive ethics and open-government bill could come up for Senate debate Thursday, and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant says he hopes it will get unanimous approval.

“To me, it is the most important bill that I have been a part of. It was the top of my agenda,” said Bryant, a Republican who was elected in November and took office in January.

“We’ve talked about a sweeping ethics reform in this state,” he said. “Its time is now.”

The bill cleared its first hurdle Tuesday with unanimous approval of the newly created Senate Ethics Committee. Several ethics and open-government bills have been filed in the House.

The Senate plan would allow the state Ethics Commission to mediate disputes about Open Meetings. Under current law, a person has to file a lawsuit if he believes a city council or other public body has improperly closed a meeting. Under the Senate plan, a person would still have the right to sue if they’re not happy with the Ethics Commission decision.

The fine would remain $100 for a board that is found to have violated the Open Meetings law.

The Senate bill, in its current form, would not change the handling of Public Records disputes. Lawmakers said those provisions could be added as the bill makes its way through the legislative process.

The Senate bill also would:

— Require more officials, such as those who serve on local economic-development boards, to file forms disclosing the sources of their income.

— Require public officials to disclose more information about gifts and about travel paid by private groups.

— Expand the list of public officials’ relatives covered by nepotism laws — to include stepchildren, foster children, stepparents and a few others.

— Establish regulations for blind trusts that public officials create to handle their personal finances. During the 2007 campaign, Democrats criticized Republican Gov. Haley Barbour over his finances. When Barbour took office in January 2004, he said he created a blind trust. Democrats said Barbour still had financial ties to the Washington lobbying firm he had founded.

— Require public officials to disclose noncommercial loans of $2,000 or more. Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Merle Flowers, R-Southaven, said that in light of a judicial bribery scandal, he wants to see more disclosure about private loans to politicians.

“The public has a right to know that someone has loaned you a quantity of money,” Flowers said Tuesday.

Prominent Gulf Coast attorney Paul Minor and two former trial judges were convicted last year in a complicated case involving financial favors Minor did for the judges. And in late November, multimillionaire trial lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs and others were indicted in an alleged judicial bribery scheme in north Mississippi.

The bills are Senate Bill 2983 and House Bills 792, 793, 794, 795 and 796.