State senator says judges ruling against Kentucky's strict legislative ethics code a victory for free speech

06/13/2017 04:38 PM

UNION – Boone County State Senator John Schickel, was pleased with a recent ruling by U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman that essentially struck down a good portion of Kentucky’s legislative ethics laws that regulated contact between legislators and lobbyists, ruling that the laws were too vague to be enforced and violated lobbyists’ freedom of speech.

Schickel, along with two Libertarian candidates, filed suit in 2015 to challenge the restrictions which were enacted after Operation BOPTROT in 1992 in which an FBI investigation exposed 15 legislators who had sold their votes, including House Speaker Don Blandford who did prison time for his actions.

The current laws prohibit lobbyists from giving legislators “anything of value” along with prohibiting Frankfort lobbyists’ from donating campaign money to legislators or legislative candidates. Schickel said that the regulations violated certain peoples rights and was not fair.

“They restrict certain people completely from the process and that’s just not right,” Schickel said.

Under Bertelsman’s ruling, lobbyists would be free to provide gifts to legislators as well as contribute to legislators campaigns.

In his decision Bertelsman wrote, “influencing the government through the act of lobbying is at the heart of the political process. A law that specifically restricts what a lobbyist can and cannot do regarding a legislative member of government is a suppression on their freedom of association with those individuals.”

Schickel says that Kentucky’s ethics laws, viewed as some of the toughest in the nation, was a knee jerk reaction as a result of the BOPTROT scandal without a lot of thought and consideration.

“I’ve seen this happen many times in the Kentucky General Assembly, something happens, something horrible happens, and we react to it,” Schickel said. “I am very much against corruption. Corruption has no place in Frankfort or in the public arena. Anybody that takes a bribe, or gets a bribe, ought to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and sent right to prison.”

Bertelsman also emphasized the vagueness of the “anything of value” language regarding any lobbyist gifts to a legislator saying, “this testimony alone indicates that the law is unconstitutionally vague because it does not give a person of ordinary intelligence the ability to know what conduct is prohibited.”

Schickel said the strict rules caused many legislators to be over cautious of doing basic acts, because there was fear of violating a regulation.

“It creates this confusion where people are afraid to interact with one another because they might be violating a criminal statute, where you could be sent to jail for violating some of these things,” Schickel said.

Schickel believes that there are alternative methods to keeping lobbyists’ and legislators in check without the restrictions that have been in place.

“I think full disclosures the answer,” Schickel said. “I think lobbyists’ should be treated like everyone else, full disclosure, and then let the people decide what’s appropriate and what’s not.”

Schickel says that, even with all of the strict restrictions in place, there have been examples of misconduct in the legislature in past years.

“We’ve had bribery and people prosecuted for attempting bribes under the ethics code and I’m sure we’ll have them when we don’t have an ethics code, because we’ll always have people who engage in illegal activity and an ethics code is not going to change that,” Schickel said. “The key is to prosecute those people to the fullest extent of the law, not restrict free speech.”

Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission and Kentucky Registry of Election Finance officials have not indicated whether they’ll appeal the decision.

Don Weber

Don Weber is a Video Journalist for Spectrum News and covers politics and education on Pure Politics, Kentucky’s only nightly program dedicated to state politics. Don is a lifelong Kentuckian and a graduate of Northern Kentucky University. He spent many years covering sports in the Northern Kentucky area before shifting primarily to politics. You can watch Don’s work weeknights at 7:00 and 11:30 on Pure Politics, available exclusively on Spectrum News, HD Channels 403 and 715. If you have a story idea you can reach Don at donald.weber@charter.com.

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