So did you hear the one about the mining engineer and ethics reform?
October 3, 2007
As a mining engineer, Bill Flangas spent much of his working life underground. As an eight-year member of the state’s Commission on Ethics, Flangas saw plenty of public officials who insisted on remaining in the dark when it came to doing the right thing.
The 80-year-old Flangas, whose term expires today, gained a valuable perspective on what he believes is the essential mission of the commission and the irrefutable flaws in the state’s ethics law.
If only someone in power were listening.
For generations in Nevada politics, the concepts of ethics and government were oxymoronic. That began to change in 1999 when the Legislature in a fleeting fit of conscience updated the law and provided for a full-time commission executive director as well as a small legal staff. Panels consisting of two commissioners each were charged with making just cause determinations, and for arguably the first time Nevadans began to expect more from their elected officials.
In the ensuing years, the commission has been one part earnest judicial quorum, one part vaudeville act. Its findings have made great headlines and have provided endless grist for beard-stroking academics, but there hasn’t been much powder in its musket.
Flangas leaves no doubt that the key flaw in the ethics system is the presence of the loophole that enables offending politicians to escape ethics sanctions if it can’t be determined they were “willful” in their violation.
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He’s far from the first to recognize that fact. So the next question is, why not just trot up to the Legislature, make your case for change, and revise the statute?
That’s where the real comedy begins.
In his two terms, Flangas made the trip to Carson City three times. Many others poured out their hearts, worked the hallways, and implored high-minded elected officials to step up, come to the light, and make the change.
Then, someone cued a laugh track and political reality set in. The ethics optimists were given the hook.
Flangas recalls, “I testified to the Legislature on three separate occasions on some weaknesses in the law. It’s basically a good law, but it’s got a couple of fatal flaws. Everyone listened carefully, nodded their head, agreed, but didn’t do anything.
“We have made a good faith effort to apply (the willful) provision judiciously, but it simply does not pass muster and hopefully will be expunged by some future Legislature.”
Unlike me, Flangas doesn’t favor trashing the commission in favor of a new set of criminal statutes that focus on inappropriate behavior by elected officials. My view is: Call the cops, cut out the middleman. He does, however, believe that the system should be honed to enable the commission to write the equivalent of citations from $1 to $5,000 when it determines an ethics infraction has been made.
“I believe that you can be marginally legal and overwhelmingly unethical,” he says. “Ethics can’t be defined like a burglary or murder or something of that nature. It’s not an exact science.”
Under the current system, once it has been determined that a violation has occurred, a separate vote is taken on whether the violation was willfully committed. Establishing willfulness can be extremely difficult.
“I think if you take that willful provision out of the law, the law will be much more meaningful and much better respected,” he says.
From the state ethics commission?
Talk about a couple of crazy goals.
“If people respect the law, you’re going to have less and less of this kind of situation,” Flangas insists. “The commission failed in gaining the respect of both the population and the political officers. That’s a failure. But that’s not a fatal failure. That could be corrected.”
But he knows the political climate must change for that to happen. At 80, he’s just trying to keep his sense of humor about his frustrating, eight-year experience.
“I took my sense of duty very seriously,” Flangas says. “I am disappointed that it didn’t take root. Somehow or other, we just keep winking at the excesses down here and not getting to the root causes.
“Do I think my time was wasted? No, I don’t really think so. But was my time successful? No, I don’t think so.”
Now this mining engineer will leave it to his replacement to help guide reluctant Nevada politicians up from darkness toward daylight.
• John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (702) 383-0295.
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