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Editorial: Pass government accountability bill

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 25, 2014 5:00 AM

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On Wednesday, an Iowa Senate panel took an important step toward combating the corruption and cronyism that seems of late to have infected Iowa politics as much as it has affected politics everywhere.

In a 3-2 vote, the Iowa Senate Government Oversight Committee advanced a bill that, if passed and signed into law by Gov. Terry Branstad, would bar secret settlements between the state government and former state employees, end cronyism in state hiring practices, require the state to disclose bonuses to state workers’ salaries, prevent no-bid “sweetheart” state contracts, and ensure protections for state employee whistleblowers who expose corruption in state government.

The bill would also force the state auditor to investigate past instances of secret settlements between state officials and former employees, including the recent noteworthy revelations that the Branstad administration spent more than half a million dollars in taxpayer money paying former state employees to keep quiet about cronyism in state government. This revelation that the administration had essentially been offering hush money to former employees eventually cost Mike Carroll, the director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, his job.

While it remains to be seen just how systemic and corrupt this particular scheme was, we applaud the Iowa Senate for taking steps to stop this type of behavior from occurring in state government in the future by advancing this legislation.

In particular, we welcome the protections enacted for whistleblowers that have the courage to speak out against wasteful and inept governmental practices. These individuals, who ultimately improve the quality of the governance in the state we live in, should be afforded protection from prosecution in exchange for their useful civic service.

But, even more important than specific provisions and policies, is the general culture of accountability that the plan will hopefully create. In an environment in which there are consequences for instituting corrupt practices, consequences such as being subject to a state auditor’s investigation or possibly jail time, the motivation to commit such acts (greed, arrogance, etc.) would be outweighed by both the legal mechanisms in place to punish corruption and also by the creation of a political culture that frowns upon corruption as a deleterious and, ultimately, fruitless enterprise.

This isn’t just a sentiment, but also a fact, verifiable by empirical evidence. A 2001 study by the World Bank found that countries with high levels of transparency, both in nongovernmental ways such as a free press (it was the Des Moines Register that broke the secret settlement story in the first place, by the way) and through direct governmental institutions (such as special prosecutors, state auditors, etc.) tended to have lower rates of corruption than countries whose political institutions held their members unaccountable and whose media elite refused to engage their representatives in an adversarial way.

The work of creating a corruption-free Iowa is not complete, however. The bill must still pass in both houses of the Legislature before it can reach Branstad’s desk for a signature. We urge all three parties in this matter, the House, Senate, and Branstad, to immediately enact this legislation in order to make corruption anathema to the state’s political apparatus.


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