It’s been one of those “go-figure” pieces of trivia, a sort of running joke around the Capitol. What’s the only standing committee in the Senate without any members? Senate Ethics. Go figure.
Snicker no more. The Senate Ethics Committee is back after nearly a decade–thanks to Don Perata.
It’s not that Senate Ethics went away, exactly. The committee has been staffed with attorneys since its creation in 1991.
But after Senator John Burton took over as Senate president pro tem in 1998, legislators were no longer assigned to it.
The committee carried on with the bulk of its work without them: giving ethics training to members and lobbyists, fielding questions from members offices and–occasionally–investigating complaints of ethical violations. It was less of a bona fide standing committee than an arm of the Senate Rules Committee.
But that wasn’t the intent of the legislators who created the committee.
Senate Ethics was born in 1991 partly out of frustration with a Joint Ethics Committee, which was seen as ineffective. “It was hard to get people to show up, especially on the Assembly side,” said David Roberti, the Senate president pro tem from 1980 to 1994. Roberti authored the Senate resolution that created the Senate Ethics Committee.
But the committee also owed its existence to a real ethical crisis in the Legislature, which occurred on Roberti’s watch: The FBI’s “Shrimpscam” sting of the late ’80s, which caught some state legislators on tape taking bribes.
“That wasn’t the only element, but it was certainly fresh in my mind at the time,” said Roberti.
But over the last 10 years, the committee has kept a low profile. “It doesn’t really do anything, unless a complaint it made,” said Gregory Schmidt, secretary of the Senate.
And committee staff is very circumspect about complaints against members or staff. One of the few times in recent years that the Senate Ethics Committee was in the public eye –and then only briefly–was in 2004, when the committee looked into a complaint over the private business dealings of