The Capitol building in Frankfort | Photo by Olivia Krauth

An ethics bill pre-filed Wednesday could close a reporting loophole that allowed groups, including partisan advocacy organizations, to prepay for the out-of-state travel and lodging expenses of state legislators with no disclosure of the amount spent.

recent Insider Louisville investigation estimated that up to $100,000 was spent by outside groups on legislators’ approved travel outside of the state last year; that spending did not have to be reported to any state agency. While public funds spent on such travel and reimbursements from private groups must be reported, there is no requirement for legislators to disclose how much those groups spend to send them to conferences and events, so long as such groups pay for the airfare, lodging and meals in advance.

The omnibus ethics bill filed by Republican state Reps. Ken Fleming of Louisville and Kimberly Moser of Taylor Mill seeks to close this loophole, as it includes a recommendation passed this summer by the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission to require the details of such spending be included on legislators’ annual financial disclosure statement. The bill will be considered during next year’s Kentucky General Assembly session.

In addition to proving financial information related to their employment, property and business interests, the bill adds that legislators would be required to disclose details regarding all out-of-state travel associated with their duties, “including the dates of each trip, travel destination, the name of any person or organization who paid for transportation, food, lodging, or other travel expenses, and the value of the travel expenses paid by each person or organization.”

Wisconsin has a similar provision in its ethics law, with a recent report documenting that outside groups had spent more than $164,000 on state legislators travel last year.

Insider’s report this summer found that a wide variety of groups had paid for legislators’ travel last year without the amount being disclosed.

State Rep. Ken Fleming, R-Louisville

Non-partisan and ideologically neutral groups like the National Conference of State Legislatures often provided scholarships for legislators that were made possible by corporate donations, while other trips were paid for by partisan political advocacy groups and election committees like GOPAC, which sent Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, to London last summer with legislative leaders from around the country and corporate lobbyists who paid heavily to tag along.

Taxpayers picked up the bill for nearly $290,000 of legislators’ out-of-state travel and lodging expenses last year, with outside groups reimbursing legislators for over $22,000 of such expenses. While information about legislator trips and certain expenses can currently be discovered through an open records request, this can often be a timely and costly process.

When approving this policy recommendation last month, Legislative Ethics Commission member Pat Freibert said that “there are legislators who can make a career out of traveling around and seeing the country with the state of Kentucky picking up the bill. So this will just make that information easily accessible to the public.”

When asked about this policy recommendation last month, Rep. Jim Gooch, R-Providence, said that he was in favor of the disclosure but believed that it would be an undue burden on each legislator to have to report travel information on their financial disclosure statement each year when they’ve already provided the Legislative Research Committee with all of their receipts from those trips.

Fleming and Moser’s ethics bill also would address the shortcomings in state law that were exposed amid sexual harassment scandals in the General Assembly in recent years. The bill would not only set clear definitions for sexual harassment and discrimination but create a confidential tip line for employees and agents of the legislative branch to report wrongdoing.

The Legislative Ethics Commission would be authorized to investigate such complaints and required to inform the alleged perpetrators within 24 hours of receiving the complaint. The bill calls for the commission to provide a status update on its investigation to its board and the director of the Legislative Research Committee within 30 days.

“Staff and legislators alike should be free to do their jobs in a free and safe work environment,” Moser said in a news release announcing the bill. “Harassment and discrimination has no place in our society, especially in a workplace that serves the general public. All allegations should be dealt with in a swift and serious manner.”

The new bill would allow the commission to dismiss a complaint via teleconference call if the complainant publicly discloses the allegations during the confidential and preliminary inquiry process, in addition to allowing the commission to proceed with the adjudication of a complaint even if a legislator leaves office after it is filed.

A bill with similar provisions, also sponsored by Fleming and Moser, passed the House by a large majority in this year’s legislative session but did not come up for a vote in the Senate.

Next year’s session of the Kentucky General Assembly begins in January.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]