Iowa Senate broadens ethics code, but not transparency rules

Iowa state senators have amended their chamber’s ethics code following a high-profile complaint against Democratic Senator Nate Boulton, which was dismissed late last year.

The new language cover actions occurring outside the capitol building and allows citizens to file a complaint more than three years after an incident. However, the updated code would still lead to dismissal of a complaint like Sharon Wegner’s allegations against Boulton.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver and Minority Leader Janet Petersen jointly offered an amendment to the Senate Code of Ethics, which the chamber approved by voice vote on February 13. The three most significant changes are:

  • A new section (12B) labeled “DISCRIMINATION —— HARASSMENT —— ABUSE” states, “As provided and defined in the personnel guidelines of the Iowa Senate, a senator shall not engage in any act of discrimination, harassment, or abuse of any person.” (I’ve enclosed those personnel guidelines below.)
  • The section that defined complaints as “timely” if filed within three years of the alleged ethics violation was deleted.

    However, the new section covers actions by “a senator”–not events that may have occurred before a person was sworn in to serve in the upper chamber. Wegner alleged that Boulton touched her non-consensually when he was a candidate for the state Senate. Because Boulton had not yet been elected, the Senate Ethics Committee dismissed the complaint for lack of jurisdiction.

  • The code previously required written complaints against a senator or lobbyist to be submitted “under oath”–that is, notarized. The new language calls for submitting them “under penalty of perjury.” In other words, a person could be criminally charged for knowingly making a false statement as part of an ethics complaint, but the document need not be notarized.
  • The bipartisan spirit ended quickly as the Senate moved to consideration of chamber rules for this legislative session. The revised document stated, “Committee meetings and subcommittee meetings shall be open,” a nod to last month’s controversy over the refusal by some Republicans to guarantee open subcommittees.

    Petersen offered an amendment clarifying that such meetings would be open “to the public,” and stating that “Notice of a subcommittee meeting must be announced at least twenty-four hours prior to the scheduled meeting time.” Iowa Senate committees have operated under that rule for more than a decade, but this year, some Republican committee chairs refused to amend their panel’s rules to require the 24-hour notice.

    Petersen’s amendment lost on a party-line 31 to 17 vote, after which senators adopted the rules package by voice vote.

    Bleeding Heartland welcomes tips on stealth Senate subcommittees scheduled less than 24 hours in advance. I anticipate Republicans will use that tactic sparingly to diminish public input on some of their most harmful legislation.

    UPDATE: I forgot to mention a couple of other changes to the ethics code. Senators deleted this sentence from the previous version of the code: “A senator with a conflict of interest may participate in floor debate if prior to debate the senator indicates the conflict of interest.” The idea is that if a senator has a conflict that would prevent voting on a measure, that person also should not be speaking during floor debate on the measure.

    The last part of the ethics code governs personal financial disclosures, which are required annually. The new version further reduces transparency by deleting a line asking senators to list “Other Income Categories Specified in State or Federal Income Tax Regulations (List description of other sources of income producing over one thousand dollars in annual income not previously reported above, but which must be reported for income tax purposes.)” Most senators listed nothing on that section of last year’s forms, but some did:

    Ken Rozenboom reported part-time farm labor for a relative.

    Mark Lofgren listed real estate sales.

    Mark Costello listed USDA farm program payments.

    Jerry Behn listed cash rent from farms.

    Michael Breitbach listed several forms of interest income, as well as income from being a bank director, annuities, retirement income, and government payments and rental income from a farm.

    Appendix 1: Revised Iowa Senate Code of Ethics. Underlined words represent new additions; words struck through were deleted.

    Appendix 2: Iowa Senate harassment prevention policy

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