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Dress codes, term limits and personal ethics—curbing unethical behavior in Jefferson City

Áine O'Connor

After the resignations of Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country, and Sen. Paul LeVota, D- Independence, earlier this year following realizations of sexually explicit texts and advances toward college-aged interns, the public’s eye has turned not just to the political decisions of Missouri lawmakers but the culture in Jefferson City as well.

Public faith in those serving the public good at the Capitol seems to have taken a serious hit.

Wally Siewert, the Director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh that lawmakers’ inappropriate actions reinforce a generally-held belief that politicians are only in it for the power, prestige and to serve themselves. “This is the wrong reaction, you’re freeing them up to fulfill your least and lowest expectations, instead of holding them to a higher standard, which is what we should be doing,” Siewert said.

Siewert and Vivian Eveloff, the Director of the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, both said that one of the biggest problems that is Missouri’s term limits for legislators.

“It is not a lifelong career, it is a stepping stone,” Eveloff said. “You know when you walk in there how long you can possibly be there and where you will go next becomes the most current thing on your mind. You need to cultivate people who have money and who can perhaps support you in your next run for another office and all of that becomes a serious issue. You don’t have the longtime relationships you used to.”

Siewert said it makes sense that voters approved term limits, but that when you think about it from the perspective of long-term functioning of the institution, it becomes problematic. “What you have is a set of legislators who don’t have a sense of the institution of the Senate or House of Representatives as a [greater] good or goal in and of itself,” he said. “Their goal isn’t to have a well-functioning Senate because they’re not going to be there very long.”

This lack of experience in the legislature factors into some of the culture of Jefferson City and improprieties that happen there. Also a huge issue, says Eveloff, is the dearth of women in public office. Currently, women hold 43 of the 163 seats in the Missouri House and six of the 34 seats in the Senate. “Data would support that women tend to be less likely to be involved in unethical behavior than men,” she said. “The lobbyists don’t quite know what to do with women.”

As of late, there have been a wide range of solutions proposed to change the atmosphere in Jefferson City, such as an idea earlier this summer to institute an intern dress code and Governor Jay Nixon’s call to shorten the legislative session to keep lawmakers out of trouble.

“The fact that they were willing to propose a dress code in response to something like this, where you have a legislator on the one hand and a teenage intern on the other, shows a tone-deafness to these kind of issues that is staggering and is clearly reminiscent of the ‘blame the victim’ attitude when it comes to sexual issues,” Siewert said. “More damning to me is the fact that it got through some kind of process to be publicly proposed without someone raising a flag. Throughout the infrastructure there seems to be a serious lack of serious thought about this issue.”

Vivian Eveloff also said that solutions such as a U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s proposal to create an advocacy group for college interns in Jefferson City was a good after-the-fact response to inappropriate behavior in the Capitol, but that more needed to be done in the way of prevention of such situations.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Eveloff said. This is where programs like those offered through the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life come in. The institute hosts “Pipeline to Public Office” and “Pipeline to Local Office” workshops that help individuals join the political arena and progress in a career there, including imparting ethical decision-making skills.

When it comes down to it, the policing of personal behavior can only be taken to a certain extent in the legislature. A fining process for unethical behavior, for example, couldn’t be implemented because it is not in legislators’ legal mandate to do so. Punishment would be internal, such as pulling legislators from committee leadership.

“Money wouldn’t be the biggest incentive,” Siewert said. “You have to remember the reason they’re doing these things in the first place is because they figure they’re not going to get caught. In order to even get to the point of deciding what punishment to pose, we’d have to get to a point that an internal investigation would find that they had done something wrong.

“Of four House complaints on sexual harassment in the past five years, one of them was found to be in violation of the Chamber’s sexual harassment policy, the lawmaker still did not admit he did anything wrong, and the case was dropped when he said he would not do it again,” Siewert said.

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.