Petri Announces New Ethics Rules Governing Conduct of House Members and Staff
New rules strengthen, clarify role and responsibilities of oversight committee
By Rep. Scott Petri (R-Bucks), former chairman, House Ethics Committee
Following the Jan. 3 swearing-in ceremony that marked the official start of the 2017-18 legislative session, the House approved an overhaul of the House ethics rules that will govern lawmakers and staffers in the new term and for years to come. The changes represent the best ethical practices in state legislatures in all 50 states and were drafted under my leadership of the House Ethics Committee last session.
The new rules clarify and strengthen the House Ethical Conduct Rules and the rules and the role of the House Ethics Committee, which is charged with addressing matters involving conflicts of interest or job-related misconduct by House members and staff. At a public meeting in November 2016, the committee voted (8-0) to adopt the rule changes. The committee’s unanimous recommendations provide a clearer path to adjudicating issues that come before it. Among other changes, the committee identified the standard of review to be used for complaints that come before it, clearly defined the role of independent counsel and adopted specific sanctions that may be imposed for violation of the rules.
The rule changes are the result of extensive research of other states and the experience of the committee members in reviewing matters that come before it. Ambiguity can weaken the committee’s ability to act decisively in cases involving questionable practices by members and employees. The rules needed clearer procedures to enhance the committee’s ability to effectively carry out its responsibilities.
We rewrote the rules, providing substantive and procedural changes aimed at preserving and protecting the integrity of this great institution and the interests of the taxpaying citizens whom we serve. I was pleased to chair the committee of members who worked together in the interest of the institution and not in a partisan manner.
To prevent the committee from being used to target political challengers prior to an election - as has occurred in the past - the rules prohibit the initiation of complaints against any member within 60 days of an election in which the member is a candidate. Any complaint received in this period could be held for consideration after the election. The rules clarify that the committee’s existence ends when the General Assembly adjourns at the conclusion of each legislative session. Any work still pending ceases and is taken up by the newly appointed committee in the next session.
Other noteworthy changes provide the committee with clarification on when it is permitted or required to hire independent counsel; when it is authorized to issue and enforce subpoenas; the timeframe in which the committee is required to act; the committee’s authority to sanction members and House employees and to define potential sanctions; and the committee’s authority to defer cases to prosecutorial entities investigating the same or similar conduct as that before the committee.
Jurisdiction over a complaint is allowed for five years after the alleged conduct against former House members or employees unless required by the Legislative Code of Ethics.
If the conduct alleged is proved by clear and convincing evidence, the committee is specifically authorized to recommend to the House a reprimand, censure, expulsion, or the denial or limitation of any right, power or privilege granted by the House rules and not contrary to the Pennsylvania Constitution.
The new rules, which passed the House by a wide bipartisan vote on Jan. 3, are now in effect.
Representative Scott Petri
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Donna Pinkham