Republicans in the Ohio House are pushing to modify the state’s ethics laws to, among other things, limit elected officials’ ability to serve on corporate boards and require more transparency from lobbyists and utility board applicants.
State Representative Derek Merrin (R-Monclova Township), flanked by 11 of the 43 Republicans who backed him for speaker, unveiled proposed legislation called the “Ohio Ethics and Financial Disclosure Reform Act,” which would make lobbyists disclose all of the money they receive from each client and forbid elected officials from serving on corporate boards of directors after being elected.
If lawmakers had elected Merrin as speaker, he said that this would have introduced this as his first bill.
Merrin lost the Ohio speakership to moderate Republican State Representative Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) earlier this month despite the Republican Caucus‘ previous selection of Merrin in November. Stephens collaborated with the Democrats to gather enough votes to garner a win.
“If you don’t have trust and integrity and people don’t have confidence in their government, it’s hard to do other things. So we wanted to try to make this our first step to show our commitment and how serious we are to ethics reform,” Merrin said.
The proposal also mandates the publication of disclosures by the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee and the Ohio Elections Commission. It states that the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation may assist the ethics commission in investigating infractions if requested. Merrin said that it would make improvements and increase state law transparency.
Considering previous Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) Chair Sam Randazzo‘s connections to FirstEnergy, the proposed legislation also mandates that candidates for the public utilities commission declare any potential conflicts of interest with the utilities they would oversee. The company has acknowledged paying off former Republican Speaker Larry Householder, who will stand trial next week.
State Representative Phil Plummer (R-Dayton), who had run against Merrin and Stephens for speaker in the closed-door caucus vote, joined the legislators who favored Merrin and this proposed legislation.
“We are the integrity caucus. This is very important for us to speak up and be a unit. We are on the eve of a very important criminal trial, which is embarrassing to my side of the aisle. The Republican side of the aisle is involved in this trial. The Republican side of the aisle now is going to fix these problems,” Plummer said.
Merrin said his staff has talked with the Joint Legislative Ethics Commission (JLEC) and Ohio Ethics Commission (OEC) as it framed the bill. Other proposed changes include: Requiring broader disclosure of lobbyist income sourced to clients and tied to the issues they are working on, as well as their lobbying history.
Clarifying that the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification within the Ohio Attorney General‘s office can assist JLEC and OEC in their investigations upon request. Prohibiting statewide elected officials from serving on corporate boards for compensation unless they were already there before taking office and have an ownership stake in the corporation. More tightly defining what qualifies as a “gift.” Aligning differing registration deadlines for lobbyists dealing with the General Assembly, executive branch, and public pension funds.
According to Merrin, Ohio’s ethics law has not been updated in decades. While Ohio’s ethics regulations have remained unchanged over that time, a number of scandals and ethical problems have emerged. Merrin called Wednesday’s press conference a “first step to delivering comprehensive reform” and said he and his Republican colleagues are receptive to any suggestions individuals may have.
“We’re going to need help to get this through. I think this is going to ultimately be a joint effort where we join together and say we need to really do what’s best for Ohio,” Merrin said.
According to a spokesman from Merrin’s office, the proposed legislation is going through a final review, and the spokesman expects it to be formally introduced any day.
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Hannah Poling is a lead reporter at The Ohio Star and The Star News Network. Follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahPoling1. Email tips to [email protected]
Background Photo “Ohio House of Representatives Chamber” by Antony-22. CC BY-SA 4.0.