SACRAMENTO — Tucked away in a corner of the state Capitol is the tiny unmarked office space of the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee, perhaps the most sedentary committee in the entire Legislature.
Unlike other committees whose power and prestige make membership a sought-after prize, the Ethics Committee is shunned as a dead-end, no-win assignment.
No power. No prestige. No perks. No full-time staff. No glamour. And, no volunteers.
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) concedes that he has difficulty finding anybody to serve on the six-member committee because "nobody wants to pass judgment on colleagues."
The situation is the same for Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) in filling the committee's three Senate positions.
"Nobody is beating down my door to fill the (one) vacancy on the committee," he said. "It is always difficult dealing with your peers in a sort of judge-supplicant role and, consequently, we don't find too many members anxious to do that."
One longtime Capitol employee who has observed the committee closely for years said there is a widely held belief that the "Legislature does not like to police itself and probably never will."
In its nearly two decades of existence, the Ethics Committee has dealt with only a handful of cases and has never recommended a substantive disciplinary action against a lawmaker. All of its records fit into a single file drawer.
The committee does not even have a real office of its own. It shares a bit of space in the fifth-floor Capitol office of Assemblyman William H. Lancaster (R-Covina), its current chairman.
There are signs, however, that the committee might be reluctantly prodded to life.
Last week, Orange County businessman W. Patrick Moriarty pleaded guilty to a variety of corruption charges and agreed to be a government witness against politicians who allegedly received bribes from him in the form of money, prostitutes, vehicles, vacation housing and the hiring of relatives.
Moriarty was the leading force behind a 1982 bill that proposed abolishing local ordinances that outlawed the sale of so-called safe-and-sane fireworks, the type manufactured by Moriarty. Then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. vetoed the bill.
There have been allegations that legislators who helped get the bill passed also were engaged in private business dealings with Moriarty and his associates and received special favors, including campaign funds and prostitutes.
Lancaster, the committee chairman, declined to discuss what the committee might do about the Moriarty case.
Before Moriarty's guilty plea, Lancaster had said he did not foresee the panel getting involved in the case because no one has brought a "valid complaint' against any lawmaker, and if one was filed the committee would have to determine whether it had proper jurisdiction over the issue.
A "valid complaint" must be in writing, identify the lawmaker in question by name, set forth allegations of specific conflicts of interest, be signed under penalty of perjury and include a statement that the complainant believes the facts to be true. That is enough to discourage most people.
The committee could act on its own, but a major barrier to proceeding is a provision that forbids the filing of an action "after the expiration of 12 months from the date upon which the alleged violation occurred"--not when the alleged violation surfaced. In the original 1967 legislation, the statute of limitations was six months.
In the cases of some lawmakers identified in press accounts of questionable dealings with Moriarty, most of the alleged actions occurred in 1981 and 1982, which seems to put them beyond the committee's reach but does not preclude action by a district attorney or other law enforcement agency.
Throughout the committee's history, its members have been reluctant to take the lead, preferring instead to let the Fair Political Practices Commission, law enforcement agencies and the courts handle their colleagues accused of wrongdoing.
'Pound of Flesh'
"They don't want to move out in front of the other agencies," Brown said of the committee members. "They want to wait until the other agencies have extracted their pound of flesh, and if those agencies extract a pound of flesh, they don't want to do anything."
And Lancaster put it this way: "The committee is the kind of committee that we hope never has to meet. . . . So, if we don't meet, I think that is good, frankly. Is it a burden? It is obviously something I wouldn't relish to do."
On March 6, Brown quietly replaced two members of the committee--one of whom, Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles), had business dealings with Moriarty. The second member, Assemblyman Richard L. Mountjoy (R-Monrovia), has not been linked to Moriarty.
Brown insisted that removing Roos and Mountjoy and replacing them with Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento) and Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) was part of a normal rotation of committee members.