Ethics Commission will not rule — for now — on controversial House Republican Caucus meetings

Published 10:00 am Friday, March 25, 2022

After a state senator asked for an Ethics Commission opinion about the controversial House Republican Caucus meetings, commission leadership directed the senator to either file an official ethics complaint or ask the attorney general’s office for an opinion.

On March 4, state Sen. Sollie Norwood asked the Ethics Commission to opine on whether House Republican Caucus meetings — which consist of more than a quorum of the entire House of Representatives, are closed to the public and are often used to debate public policy behind closed doors — violate the Open Meetings Act.

But the same day, Norwood received a response from Tom Hood, executive director of the Ethics Commission, saying that the commission could not issue an opinion unless a formal complaint was filed.

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“The Ethics Commission has the authority to enforce the Open Meetings Act through a complaint process,” Hood wrote to Norwood, who did not see Hood’s response until March 23. “However, the commission has no authority to issue advisory opinions about the Open Meetings Act…”

Hood said that the attorney general’s office, not the Ethics Commission, has authority to issue advisory opinions regarding the Open Meetings Act.

As of March 24, the Ethics Commission does not have a complaint or any other request before its eight-member board to make a ruling on whether the House Republican Caucus is violating state law.

It is unclear if Norwood will file a formal ethics complaint or reach out to the attorney general’s office for an opinion. Meanwhile, the House Republican Caucus met Tuesday amid a cascade of questions from both Republicans and Democrats regarding the meetings’ legality.

The House Republican Caucus meetings, which have been convened regularly since Philip Gunn became speaker of the House in 2012, are the subject of close scrutiny this session as House and Senate leaders battle over major tax proposals.

Earlier this week, Mississippi Today chronicled what occurs inside the meetings that are closed to the public and the press. Major pieces of legislation authored or supported by Republican leaders including Gunn are often discussed and debated inside the backroom meetings.

Those deliberations often mean lawmakers will ask few or no questions during public committee meetings and on the House floor. In caucus meetings in recent years under Gunn’s leadership, Republican members have been asked to vote on specific bills, several lawmakers told Mississippi Today.

The meetings have never been challenged before the Ethics Commission or state courts. But several past opinions — including a 2017 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling — indicate the meetings could be illegal because the House Republican Caucus represents much more than a majority of the entire House of Representatives and is deliberating public policy in private.

Gunn’s staff maintains that the House Republican Caucus is not obligated to adhere to the Open Meetings Act because it is not a “public body,” as defined by state law.

“The House Republican Caucus is not a public body under the Open Meetings Act,” said Emily Simmons, Gunn’s communications director. Trey Dellinger, Gunn’s chief of staff, shared the same justification with Mississippi Today.

Senate leaders do not agree. When Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann became lieutenant governor and presiding officer of the Senate in 2020, second-term Republican state Sen. Mike Seymour inquired whether caucus meetings were legal under the Open Meetings Act. After Senate staff did some research, Hosemann decided that he would not convene Senate Republican Caucus meetings because the staff advised him the meetings could very likely violate the Open Meetings Act.

The House Republican Caucus met on Tuesday of this week, just hours after the legality of the meetings were publicly called into question. The caucus, according to attendees, did not discuss any specific piece of legislation. The House Republicans ate lunch and heard from House leaders about upcoming legislative deadlines.

By Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today