A bill to toughen ethics regulations for executive branch employees and require reporting of contributions to legal defense funds passed unanimously out of the House State Government Committee on Thursday.

House Bill 250, co-sponsored by committee Chairman Mike Cherry, D-Princeton, and John Vincent, R-Ashland, would alter the way members of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission are appointed; require quarterly public disclosure of contributions to legal defense funds; and strengthen protections for whistleblowers and some penalties for Merit System violations. It would also extend some provisions of ethics regulations to appointed members of boards and commissions.

The bill is supported by Gov. Steve Beshear who promised in his campaign, inaugural speech and State of the Commonwealth address to strengthen ethics requirements for his administration. He has also called for a constitutional amendment to limit a governor’s pardon powers but that will be contained in separate legislation.

The bill is similar to previous ones offered by Vincent and Cherry with some minor changes, according to Beshear’s Senior Policy Analyst and former legislator Joe Meyer, who testified on behalf of the bill.

If passed, the bill would require the Governor to appoint some members of the ethics commission from a list of nominees submitted by the State Auditor and the Attorney General. Currently, the governor appoints all members.

Meyer said the offices of Auditor and Attorney General were chosen because they are the constitutional offices which have investigative and enforcement authority.

The bill would require anyone in the executive branch who established a legal defense fund to report contributions by name and amount on a quarterly basis.

The bill is at least partly reaction to the Merit System investigation into hiring practices by previous Gov. Ernie Fletcher who later established a legal defense fund but was not required to report contributions to it until after the November election. (Fletcher made the report this month, showing only a little more than $90,000 had been contributed, but his opponents in both the Republican primary last spring and Beshear in the fall campaign tried to make the “secret legal defense fund” a campaign issue.)

Republican leaders in the Senate have said previously they do not think some of the proposals are necessary. Sen. Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, the Majority Leader, has said current laws are adequate if properly enforced. Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said this week that whatever ethics bill comes to the Senate from Beshear or the House, “it will leave her stronger than when it arrived.”

The bill now goes to the House floor for a vote.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com.

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