Last week the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee voted unanimously to dismiss Ed and Lynn Fallon's complaint against State Senator Merlin Bartz, who used his official website to promote this petition last month. The petition sought to pressure Iowa's county recorders to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The Fallons contended that Bartz failed to comply with the Senate Code of Ethics, which requires legislators to "encourage respect for the law." They also questioned whether taxpayer money was used to support the website where Bartz promoted the petition drive and urged volunteers to send copies of their signature lists to the Iowa Family Policy Center.
The Senate Ethics Committee concluded after a few minutes' discussion that Bartz was exercising his free speech rights.
On May 18, I'M for Iowa released a statement depicting the hearing as a "sham." Contrary to the Iowa Senate Code of Ethics, the Senate Ethics Committee failed to inform the Fallons of the date and time of the hearing in advance. The committee also did not consider the specific questions raised in the Fallons' complaint. I've posted I'M for Iowa's statement after the jump.
It seems clear that two political realities derailed any serious inquiry into the complaint against Bartz. First, Bartz is an insider, and the complainants are outsiders. (Heck, Ed Fallon was an outsider even when he was serving in the state legislature.) Earlier this year, the Iowa House Ethics Committee dismissed with prejudice a complaint Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement filed against State Representative Dolores Mertz without seriously considering many of the issues raised by the group.
I would put very low odds on any ethics complaint filed by any citizen action group leading to disciplinary action against a state representative or senator. (Please correct me if you know of any counter-examples.)
Second, I suspect that Senate Democrats have no interest in making a martyr out of Bartz. Opponents of marriage equality are desperate to show that their rights are threatened by same-sex marriages. We don't need Bartz to be purportedly "punished for speaking his mind" (even though that wasn't the point of the Fallons' complaint). Look what the National Organization for Marriage has done to make Miss California USA seem like a victim of "gay marriage activists".
Bartz hasn't prevented any same-sex marriages from taking place, but he has secured a reputation as the most aggressive defender of "traditional marriage" in the Iowa Senate Republican caucus. He has also helped the Iowa Family Policy Center generate lots of new leads for their next membership drive.
I'll be interested to see whether Senate Republicans seek to replace their current leader, Paul McKinley, with Bartz next year. McKinley's actions on the marriage front have been found wanting by some Iowa conservatives and anti-gay activists.
Press release from I'M for Iowa:
Monday, May 18, 2009
Hearing on Bartz Complaint a Sham
Citing the Iowa Senate Code of Ethics (Item 19-A), which states, "notice of the hearing date and time shall be given to the complainant and respondent in writing," Lynn and Ed Fallon alleged that the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee last week violated its own rules by failing to notify the Fallons of the public hearing regarding their complaint against Senator Bartz. In that complaint, the Fallons contend that Bartz violated his oath of office when he encouraged county recorders to break the law and deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The complaint further contends that taxpayers' money may have been used to promote Bartz's activities.
"We didn't receive notice of the meeting until AFTER it was over," said Ed Fallon. "State government has come under a lot of criticism recently for not operating in an open and public manner, and this unfortunately is another example."
On May 8th, the Fallons heard second-hand of a possible Senate Ethics Committee meeting to address their complaint against Senator Bartz. At 1:32 p.m. on May 8th, Ed sent an e-mail message to the Senate President's office requesting confirmation of the meeting, inquiring about the meeting's location, and asking if he and Lynn were welcome to attend. He never received a response. He then called the Secretary of the Senate on the morning of May 12th and spoke with a woman who said she would have someone call him. He never received a call. At 12:45 p.m. on May 12th, the Fallons received in the mail an envelope from the Secretary of the Senate postmarked May 11th containing an agenda for the 12:00 noon Ethics Committee meeting.
"We heard that the meeting lasted a total of seven minutes," said Lynn Fallon. "The questions we raised in the complaint were never addressed. Specifically, we feel the public has a right to know two things. First, did Senator Bartz violate the Iowa Constitution, the Code of Iowa and the Iowa Senate Rules in asking other elected officials to break the law? Second, was the website Senator Bartz used to promote his cause funded entirely or in part by Iowa taxpayers? It appears the Committee never answered these questions."