Secret ethics committee hearing has open government advocates seeking common ground
A rare closed-door hearing by the House Ethics Committee is sounding the alarm bells for open government advocates.
Most government meetings in Delaware are open to the public by law, and all decisions made by lawmakers and board members must be made in public.
But this is not the case for legislative ethics committees, which, although meeting very rarely, are allowed to conduct all their business in secret.
John Flaherty is the director of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government.
“And even though the House Ethics Committee met the legal requirements of the law, they were allowed to meet behind closed doors – they certainly did not respect the spirit of the law that would have allowed the public to observe and find out what the heck that’s it, ”Flaherty said.
Meetings of the Legislative Ethics Committee are exempt from open meeting laws in Delaware, as they are in many other states.
The reasoning behind secrecy is to protect the privacy of the legislator under scrutiny. Flaherty says that in most ethics cases all information has already been released into the public sphere, so there is no reason for so much secrecy.
The committee did not release any information other than “Discuss executive business in committee.” it is therefore not known which legislator is the subject of the hearing.
And hearings take place very rarely, the last meeting of the House Ethics Committee was in 2012.
Flaherty says there is no major reason why these committees should be closed in the first place.
“Most of the time, when there are ethical breaches of public trust, the news media have already widely reported on these actions,” Flaherty added. “Everyone knows the conditions that motivated the ethics hearing, so I think they’re a little too protective.”
Flaherty says there is a middle ground between protecting a politician’s private information and holding lawmakers accountable at meetings.
He says lawmakers who are subject to these hearings should stand up for their actions to the public and that people should be given a chance to speak out.
The chair of the House Ethics Committee, State Representative Valerie Longhurst, declined to comment on her closed-door meeting on Friday.
Roman Battaglia is a member of the corps with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.