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A secretive Ethics Committee hearing has open government advocates seeking common ground

Delaware Public Media

A rare closed-door House Ethics Committee hearing is raising alarms for open government advocates.


Most government meetings in Delaware are open to the public by law, and all decisions made by lawmakers and board members have to be done out in the open.


But that’s not the case for the legislative ethics committees, which, despite meeting very rarely, are allowed to conduct all their business in secret.


John Flaherty is the director of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government.


“And even though the House Ethics Committee met the legal requirements for the law, they were allowed to meet in closed session — they certainly did not meet the spirit of the law which would have allowed the public in to observe and find out what the heck this is all about,” Flaherty said.


Legislative Ethics Committee meetings are exempted from open meetings laws in Delaware, as they are in many other states.


The reasoning behind the secrecy is to protect the privacy of the lawmaker under scrutiny. Flaherty says in most ethics cases, all the information has already been out in the public sphere, so there’s no reason for this much secrecy.


The committee didn’t disclose any information other than “Discuss executive business before the committee.” so it’s unknown which lawmaker is the subject of the hearing.


And the hearings happen very rarely, the last meetingof the House Ethics Committee was in 2012.


Flaherty says there’s not a major reason why these committees should be closed in the first place.


“Most times when there’s ethical violations of the public trust, the news media has already reported extensively on these actions,” added Flaherty. “Everybody knows the conditions that prompted the ethics hearing so I think they’re being a little over protective.”


Flaherty says there's a middle ground between protecting a politician’s private information and holding lawmakers accountable in meetings.


He says lawmakers that are subject to these hearings should be defending their actions to the public, and people should have a chance to weigh in.


House Ethics Committee chair State Rep. Valerie Longhurst declined to comment about its closed door meeting Friday.


Roman Battaglia is a corps member withReport for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Roman Battaglia grew up in Portland, Ore, and now reports for Delaware Public Media as a Report For America corps member. He focuses on politics, elections and legislation activity at the local, county and state levels.
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