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Title X, 02.5.2018

Sen. John Kuehn directs a question during a committee hearing on Feb. 5.

A Nebraska state senator thinks the time is right for the Legislature to create an ethics board.

Ethical discussions have come up in one form or another during Heartwell Sen. John Kuehn's time in the Legislature, but with nowhere to turn for a formal procedure to address them. Those discussions included a high-profile case last year in which Sen. Bill Kintner was pressured to resign for misuse of his state computer in a cybersex scandal and for an inappropriate tweet. 

"I felt it was imperative that we move off high-center and start moving forward with some concrete steps," Kuehn said.  

He has proposed creation of a board with a chair elected by senators and six additional members appointed by the Committee on Committees, with two members from each of the three congressional districts. 

It would address legal and behavioral conduct.

The Executive Board will hear the proposal Thursday during a noon hearing. 

"There really are no rules here," said Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn. 

The Legislature has a policy-and-procedures guide for workplace harassment. Complaints can be made to the Ombudsman's office, the attorney for the Executive Board, the affirmative action officer of the Legislature, or any other supervisor. A written report is then presented to the chair of the Executive Board.

Other states have formal ways to address ethics complaints. 

The Iowa General Assembly, for example, has an ethics committee of six members equally divided between the majority and minority parties. It prepares a code of ethics and rules governing lobbyists upon the convening of each general assembly. It receives complaints of ethical misconduct and has hearings on charges if the complaint is deemed valid and if an investigation by independent special counsel supports a finding of probable cause.

The board Kuehn is proposing would establish ethical guidelines and investigate complaints against senators or employees of the Legislature, and would establish procedures for those investigations and penalties for violations.

The devil, it appears, is in the details.  

Ethics could be added to the Legislature's rules, but those rules are void of consequences, so what good does it do, asked Speaker Jim Scheer. If you add punitive action, does it affect the senator, or the people he or she represents? 

"Are they needed? I don't know," he said. "I don't think we've had that many ethical breaches, certainly not in the time I've been here."

Still, setting a bar for behavior is a good thing, he said.  

State law requires senators to file conflict-of-interest disclosures on issues that come up in their work with the Legislature, but they can still vote on the issue, and many of them don't even disclose the conflict.  

"Certainly on the national level, and on many levels of government, if you have a conflict you cannot participate or you can't vote," Linehan said. 

Even in a citizens' legislature, that could be tightened up a little, she said. 

Several senators liked the idea of a formal way to address ethics, whether it's a separate committee or the ability to assign ethics questions to an existing committee. 

"I think it's good government to have somebody that can look into it," Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete said. "I think it's a good conversation to start." 

Omaha Sen. Burke Harr said people hold senators to a high standard, and they should hold themselves to an even higher standard. And Omaha Sen. Bob Krist would support the bill, which is not perfect as written but could be made better, he said. 

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers was skeptical about an ethics board, and the danger of it being tainted and slanted from the beginning. Because of the politics involved, it could have a chilling effect on the Legislature, he said. 

Kuehn said there would always be concerns about procedures for receiving complaints and investigating and addressing them. 

"That said, a process that is transparent, and the rules of which are clearly understood by all members and staff, to my mind, is preferential to the absence of a system," he said. 

Having no system could lead to unequal treatment, based upon how popular or politically connected an individual is.

"I always anticipate pushback to something new, and especially something that may potentially have consequences," Kuehn said. 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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