The ethics legislation that was passed in 2005 and 2006 does not require a county to have an ethics committee. Nevertheless, many counties have established county ethics committees to deal with potential ethics complaints. Bear in mind that a county ethics committee has very little, if any, authority to do anything other than to screen ethics complaints and direct the complaint to the proper county official or county or state agency that can take appropriate action on the complaint.
As previously stated, the county ethics policy is required to cover the acceptance of and disclosure of gifts accepted by officials and employees and the disclosure of conflicts of interest. Accordingly, an ethics complaint received by a county ethics committee that does not address either the acceptance and/or disclosure of a gift or a conflict of interest need not be pursued by the ethics committee.
Note that the County Purchasing Law of 1957, T.C.A. § 5‑14‑101 et seq., and the 1981 Financial Management Act, T.C.A. § 5‑21‑101 et seq., both contain stringent conflict of interest provisions and prohibitions on the acceptance of gifts. It is important to note that in counties that have adopted either of these two Acts, the provisions of these state laws control to the extent that they are more restrictive than the county’s ethics policy.
County officials who serve on a county ethics committee should review ethics complaints to make sure that the complaint first addresses either the acceptance/disclosure of a gift or a conflict of interest. If the ethics complaint does not address one of these two issues, the ethics committee should direct the complainant to the appropriate person or agency that may properly address the complaint and proceed no further.
If the complaint does address an issue covered by the county ethics policy, the committee should proceed to determine if the complaint bears further inquiry. If the complaint states a possible violation of the county ethics policy, the committee should turn the complaint over to the proper county official who actually has the authority the deal with the violation. Depending upon the stated complaint, that could be a county office holder, if the complaint is against an employee, or the county attorney if the complaint is against an elected county official. If the complaint states a possible criminal violation, the committee should turn the matter over to the district attorney’s office. In addition, if the information contained in the complaint reasonably causes the committee members to believe that a theft, forgery, credit card fraud, or any other act of unlawful taking of public money, property, or services has occurred, the committee must report the information in a reasonable amount of time to the office of the Comptroller of the Treasury. T.C.A. § 8-4-503(a).
In order to do the job effectively, members of the ethics committee must be well versed in the state conflict of interest laws that apply to their particular county. A general understanding of criminal law would also be helpful.