A Fox in the Ethics Henhouse?

I was shocked and amazed recently when I received Rep. Susan Fisher’s latest e-mail “Report from Raleigh.” While I commend her for communicating with her constituents, I was astounded at her gall to even raise the subject of legislative ethics.

Fisher’s chairmanship of the so-called “House Ethics Committee” is a farce. The Committee doesn’t meet unless Fisher, appointed by Speaker Jim Black, calls them together. If you consider the last session as the Legislature’s Season of Scandal, with everything hovering about Black, you’d think Fisher would have had her committee in session full-time, or at least would have called for televised hearings into the speaker’s obvious conflicts of interest.

But you’d be wrong. While investigators looking into allegations subpoenaed all of Black’s campaign and personal files, Fisher’s committee was conspicuous by its silence. The committee she chairs was bypassed by Speaker Black, who hand-picked a separate Select Committee on Ethics and Government Reform that is cranking out proposed legislation by the bucketful. In effect, they are proposing to pile more ethics rules on top of existing rules that are rarely enforced. The last time the House Ethics Committee took any action against a member was in 1995, when former Representative Ken Miller engaged in inappropriate conduct with a House page.

It gets worse. Fisher recently joined all of her Democratic colleagues in a unanimous vote of confidence to return Black as Speaker for this summer’s Short Session. As of May 22 Fisher’s committee had not met to discuss Black’s problems with his political director Meredith Norris. They had not met to discuss Black’s problems with the state lottery. They had not met to discuss Black’s total conflict of interest with the bill he inserted requiring all children have an eye exam by an optometrist or ophthalmologist prior to enrolling in kindergarten.

Instead of rooting out the corruption in Raleigh, Fisher’s response to the scandal is to recommend a big pay raise for legislators. As reported in the Raleigh News Observer, Fisher said, “We need to pay legislators better, clean up lobbying, and look seriously at public financing of campaigns.” She argues that paying lawmakers more would reduce their temptation to let lobbyists buy them meals or provide gifts. What a novel idea — that taxpayers should fund campaigns and then pay their elected officials not to be corrupt. Sorry, but I don’t follow her logic.

It appears that Speaker Black could be indicted, tried, possibly convicted and in the slammer before she would wake up to smell the coffee. Or the stench of corruption.

The people of Western North Carolina are not being well served by Rep. Fisher. She should be replaced in November.

Bill Lack is the WNC coordinator for FreedomWorks, a watchdog national political action group. He lives in West Asheville.