The California State Senate is getting a refresher course on ethics Wednesday. Senate President Darrell Steinberg has ordered all Senators and staff members to take part in the day-long training today.
Steinberg announced the ethics class following the suspension of three Democratic Senators last month. Senators Leland Yee and Ron Calderon are both facing charges in corruption cases. Senator Rod Wright has been convicted of lying about where he lives.
Steinberg says more ethics training won’t necessarily prevent bad behavior, but it’s still beneficial.
“It is always important to look inside and to be reflective and to ask, well, what practices are there that we ought to be looking at,” says Steinberg. “What should we change?”
Steinberg says national ethics experts will conduct the training.
The legal troubles of the three California state senators have people wondering if their staffs knew what was going on.
Several former Capitol staffers say probably not. Strict rules exist to keep the policy and politics of lawmakers separate. Consultant Robin Swanson has worked for lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington DC.
“Members have trusted advisors, sometimes those are staff within the Capitol, so for example their Chief of Staff," says Swanson. "But, a lot of times, it’s political consultants. And the smart members will have a firewall between their political team and their Capitol team.”
Staffers in the California Capitol do receive periodic ethics training. But some worry loyalty may result in silence. Steinberg highlighted the issue on the Senate floor.
“If you are a staff member in this building, you have a duty of loyalty to your member," says Steinberg ."But if you know of any behavior which is unethical, from anyone, it is your duty to report it.”
A new measure pending in the legislature would give staffers whistle blower protection for reporting possible violations.
Daniel Zingale, who’s served in the legislative and executive branches, says the politicians he’s worked for stress ethical behavior.
"I think the good members of the legislature and governors make a very strong point to their team about the importance of ethics," says Zingale. "Not only because it’s the right thing to do but because their political survival can depend on it.”
Zingale says, to him, the influence of corporate money in the Capitol poses the biggest ethical threat. Swanson believes campaign season is when politicians are truly exposed. But both agree most lawmakers are ethical and expect their staff to be as well.
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