Like the Benda/Bollen/GOED/EB-5 scandal before it, the Westerhuis/Melmer/MCEC/GEAR UP scandal is prompting Democrats to push for a state ethics commission.
(Job #1 for such a commission: give these complicated scandals simple names that everyone can remember!)
As they did last winter, House Republicans say they’ve got corruption under control and an ethics commission is a useless partisan ploy:
House Majority Leader Brian Gosch opposed the ethics commission measure last session. He said an existing legislative oversight committee has successfully exposed weaknesses in oversight of the GEAR UP program managed by Mid-Central, showing that the current system works.
…House Republicans easily blocked the ethics commission plan during the 2015 session, arguing that it was unnecessary and that the EB-5 program was thoroughly examined by the operations and audit committee. Gosch said he largely maintains that view heading into 2016.
“I still think the intention is more of a political ploy,” he said. “I think an ethics commission, if in existence, would not have stopped the problems at Mid-Central” [James Nord, “Democrats Plan New Push for Ethics Commission over GEAR UP,” AP via Mitchell Daily Republic, 2015.10.12].
In a way, Rep. Gosch is right. Two generations of GOP domination of state government have allowed appartchiks to parlay their positions into six-figure windfalls. Politics lets this corruption happen. Only politics will stop this corruption. So sure, in that regard, the push for an independent ethics commission, whether it comes from Rep. Peggy Gibson and other legislators or from the bipartisan South Dakotans for Ethics Reform and the ballot measure they are promoting, is inescapably political, just like the purely political opposition Gosch et al. offer to protect their slop trough.
Let’s be honest: an independent state ethics commission threatens the power of the majority party as surely as an independent redistricting commission. The majority party doesn’t want to give up its power. That’s understandable. Selfish, unfair, unjust, but perfectly understandable.
But as long as the foxes guard the henhouse, hens will be eaten, and we won’t get all the eggs we expect from government. As long as one party controls appropriations, access, hiring, and firing, public employees and the press will live in fear and mostly stay silent, allowing (among other things) the transfer of multi-million-dollar federal grant administration to a crony-laden ed co-op far from media scrutiny in Platte. And we won’t find out about unethical behavior until men take shotguns to themselves and their families.
An ethics commission would be nice. But I doubt we’ll get one until we elect a state government with partisan balance. And if we had a more even split of Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature, if we elected a Democratic Governor who could spend a couple terms placing Democrats in powerful positions, if state officials knew that any monkeyshines were just one election cycle away from being exposed by viable challengers from the other party and reporters unbeholden to entrenched monopoly-party leaders, a lot of corruption might check itself without an ethics commission.