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July 30, 2014

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Sun Editorial:

A tragic case

Brooks’ expulsion, however right, should have been done in public

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The Assembly made the historic decision Thursday to expel Steven Brooks from its membership, capping a trying and tragic process.

The expulsion, the first from the Legislature in state history, was expected. Brooks’ increasingly erratic behavior had led members of the Legislature and staff to fear for their safety. From just after the opening of the session, he had been suspended from the Assembly and barred from the building while lawmakers considered what to do.

Brooks apparently refused Assembly leadership’s offers of help, and with the continued distraction and potential danger clouding the session, the Assembly was right to take action. From what we know, we don’t doubt it came to the correct conclusion.

However, the problem with the Assembly’s action was how it came to its decision. Given the historic nature of the expulsion and the fact that lawmakers removed a representative duly elected by the people, the Assembly should have moved in an open and transparent way. It didn’t. Lawmakers did most of their work in secret.

A select committee created to investigate the charges against Brooks hired an attorney who compiled two reports, both of which have been kept confidential. Last week, the committee spent several hours discussing the reports and deliberating behind closed doors before recommending Brooks be expelled.

On Thursday, the full Assembly took a voice vote to approve the committee’s recommendation to expel Brooks during an emotional session. But left behind closed doors were the underlying reasons for the expulsion. That’s wrong.

More than a dozen news outlets, including the Sun, have asked the Assembly to release its reports, but the Assembly has refused to release either one.

Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick said that much of the information the Assembly based its decision on had been reported in the media, and there has been no shortage of coverage. The alleged threats against Kirkpatrick and Majority Leader William Horne are well-known. Police reports about Brooks’ arrests, including information that alleges he had a gun and ammunition with him after the reported threats, have been made public, along with news about him being confined against his will for a psychiatric evaluation.

But the Assembly didn’t base its decision on news reports. It based its decision on the recommendation of a committee that based its decision on two reports that have yet to be made public. There’s no reason those reports and deliberations should be kept secret, especially now that the decision has been made.

The attorney who compiled the reports and the Legislative Counsel Bureau have expressed privacy concerns about the investigative report. The attorney said he obtained information from law enforcement agencies with the pledge of secrecy.

The Legislature could redact any sensitive material, but it won’t. The fact that it made a confidential deal to get information is troubling because this is the public’s business. Brooks was a public official, not a hireling shielded by personnel laws, and expelling a member is an extraordinary measure.

It’s notable that when the Legislature moved to impeach then-state Controller Kathy Augustine in 2004, the work was done in public. Witnesses and evidence were reviewed in public, much like in a courtroom. The Assembly should have followed that example.

This is a matter of principle. The Legislature is supposed to act with some sense of deliberation, and its deliberations are supposed to be made in public, along with the various reports and details it gathers.

If the Legislature truly is, as it bills itself, the “people’s branch of government,” it should always act in public. The Brooks case should not be an exception. The Assembly should release the confidential reports and the minutes of the select committee’s meetings to give the public the full explanation of its actions.

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  1. Once Steven Brooks chose to run for elected office his entire life, past present and future both personally and professionally became a matter of public record. While friends and coworkers wanted to protect his privacy, they can't. Nor should they for any reasons regardless of their intentions.

    Carmine D