Ethics for Legislative Staff

ABRAHAM LINCOLN EXHIBITS

By Chris Micheli

Just like California legislators who are bound by laws and codes of conduct, there are guides for the conduct of legislative staff as they serve their elected officials and the public. For example, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has published a “Model Code of Conduct for Legislative Staff.” This comprehensive guide is an invaluable resource for legislative staff across the country.

The purpose of this code of conduct is to provide guidance to legislative staff so that they can better serve the public and the legislative branch of state government. Staff are invaluable to the legislative process and the institution itself, but they are also public servants just like elected legislators. And, just like legislators, staff are there to carry out the mission of the Legislature and they also have a relationship of trust to the institution and the public. In that regard, staff must conduct themselves appropriately toward legislators, the public, lobbyists, and fellow staff members.

Any code of conduct must detail how legislative staff should conduct themselves so that the public trust is protected. In addition to any code of conduct, there are relevant state laws that apply to staff, such as the California Government Code that provides extensive guidance to public employees. The relevant provisions are found in Title 1. General. Division 4. Public Officers and Employees. Chapter 9.5. Political Activities of Public Employees.

Among numerous provisions of the Government Code, staff are prohibited from using the office, authority or influence to obtain a change in position or compensation upon corrupt condition or consideration. In addition, staff may not solicit or receive political funds or contributions related to ballot measures on working conditions.

Fundamentally, a state employee cannot engage in any employment, activity, or enterprise which is clearly inconsistent, incompatible, in conflict with, or inimical to his or her duties as a state officer or employee. As such, staff are prohibited from using the prestige or influence of the state for private gain or advantage, and cannot use state time, facilities, equipment, or supplies for private gain or advantage.

Similarly, staff cannot be paid by third parties for performing their state duties. And they cannot use confidential information for private gain or to provide such information to unauthorized persons. As would be expected, staff cannot receive or accept any gifts from anyone who is doing business or seeking to do business with the state. While many of these prohibitions may be obvious, they are important for staff to keep in mind as they perform their valuable public service while working in the Legislature.

In reviewing the NCSL’s model code, it provides a number of helpful guides to legislative staff. First, it notes the general principles of conduct, including being a public servant, being loyal to the legislative branch, as well as being trustworthy and civil. The model code also notes the obligations of staff to legislators with specific traits of: honesty, discretion, candor, objectivitycompetency, diligence, and fairness.

Finally, the model code then turns to staff obligations to other staff members and that they be respectful and supportive with each other. The code concludes with staff obligations to members of the public: be courteous and law-abiding. These guidelines are helpful for legislative staff to remember as they carry out their important activities at the California State Capitol.

Chris Micheli is a Principal with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor at McGeorge School of Law in its Capital Lawyering Program.

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