A full-blown ethics inquiry is rare, but it is not unprecedented. So, while the senators investigating whether Sen. Scott Bundgaard breached the chamber’s ethical rules have a lot of questions about how to conduct the trial, old Senate records actually provide plenty of guidance.
Just three years ago, for example, the Senate Ethics Committee also heard a complaint against then-Sen. Jack Harper, R-Surprise. The complaint stemmed from Harper’s action to turn off the microphone of two Democrats who were staging a filibuster in an attempt to derail the passage of the contentious marriage amendment proposal in 2008. That committee kept the ethics trial simple: Each side was allowed a chance to speak, committee members asked questions, and they then decided to dismiss the ethics complaint.
Bundgaard’s case is obviously more complex since it arose from domestic violence-related offenses. Additionally, the trial could potentially involve police investigators and witnesses, not to mention lawyers.
But today’s ethics committee members aren’t the first ones to grapple with questions about how to conduct a trial that is expected to look like a court hearing. The 1991 ethics investigation that stemmed from “AzScam,” one of Arizona’s biggest political scandals, also dealt with calling witnesses and presenting documents. For example, the senators then hired a special counsel to initially investigate accusations. The special counsel later acted as the “prosecutor” in the case.
Today’s committee members understand the need to establish a burden of proof standard that will allow them to weigh the evidence and decide whether Bundgaard violated the Senate’s rules on ethics. The 1991 AzScam ethics hearings also provide guidance on that matter, as the committee adopted the “substantial evidence” standard. This standard means evidence that a reasonable mind could accept as adequate to support a conclusion.
Another big question is the mechanics of the trial itself. Fortunately for today’s senators, minutes of the 1991 case exist and those records include details of procedures, such as which side the panel’s members wanted to speak first. Actually, those records also contain accounts of how the ethics committee dealt with motions that are typically filed in a judicial court.
In short, answers are available. Additionally, many of those who attended the ethics hearing in 1991 are still around — and they undoubtedly can provide plenty of advice to today’s committee members.