Ethics bill passes Mississippi Senate

Published 4:41 pm Friday, February 15, 2008

Want to know whether a public official holds stock in a certain company? Under current Mississippi law, you have to file a written request with the state Ethics Commission to get a copy of the politician’s annual economic disclosure form.

Then you might have to wait for the document to arrive. By the way, you’re letting the official know that you’re wondering about his wallet.

Under a bill passed by the state Senate Thursday, the Ethics Commission would be authorized to post politicians’ economic disclosure forms online, and that would make the forms available anyone anywhere on the globe, with just the click of a computer mouse.

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The greater disclosure is one of several provisions in a sweeping ethics bill that passed 46-0. The bill moves to the House for more work.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican who took office in January, said he wants to send a message across the nation that “this will be the most ethical government in Mississippi history.”

The bill would allow the 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 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.

Tom Hood, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, noted Thursday that some national watchdog groups have given Mississippi failing grades for government openness.

“That’s about to change,” Hood said. “I think we may get an ‘A’ next year if this legislation goes through.”

The 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.

Sen. Kenneth Wayne Jones, D-Canton, prompted laughter during the Senate debate when he said in some parts of the state politicians might have a hard time avoiding nepotism conflicts because “you don’t know who you’re kin to.”

— 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 an ongoing judicial bribery scandal demonstrates the need for the state to demand more disclosure about private loans to politicians.

Sen. Haskins Montgomery, D-Bay Springs, was absent Thursday.

Five senators voted “present,” which was neither for nor against the bill. They were Democrats Deborah Dawkins of Pass Christian, Alice Harden of Jackson, Robert Jackson of Marks, David Jordan of Greenwood and Johnnie Walls of Greenville.

Several ethics bills have been filed in the House.

The bill is Senate Bill 2983 and House Bills 792, 793, 794, 795 and 796.