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Sen. Darius Brown faces the first Senate ethics investigation in 35 years. What to expect

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Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show that lawmakers struck a bill in 2007 to censure former Rep. John Atkins.

Sen. Darius Brown is the first senator to face an ethics inquiry in 35 years after facing misdemeanor charges for allegedly punching a woman and separately getting into a verbal altercation with a House member.

While previous lawmakers have been accused of violating the state's ethics code between now and then, the General Assembly's handling of those cases has been inconsistent at best, raising questions over just what spurred the inquiry set to start early next year into Brown's alleged pattern of behavior toward women.

Senate leadership announced plans to investigate Brown's conduct after the Wilmington Democrat got into a heated verbal altercation with Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, a New Castle Democrat, during a November press event when Gov. John Carney signed multiple criminal justice bills. It's unclear what the altercation was about.

"Something that rises to the level of criminal investigation is something that we should be paying attention to, and pursuing further investigation within our own workplace as well," said Senate Majority Whip Tizzy Lockman, a Wilmington Democrat, who chairs the Senate Ethics Committee.

It's a noticeably harsher and more public response than that of House leadership toward Rep. Gerald Brady this summer when conducting its own ethics inquiry into the lawmaker for using an anti-Asian slur in a June email making light of human trafficking.

The House leaders conducted the inquiry almost entirely behind closed doors after only being spurred by freshman Newark Democrat Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton filing a complaint against Brady for the email.

And while House and Senate leaders are quick to evade responsibility for what goes on in the other chamber, Lockman's response to Brown is also noticeably harsher than how the Senate has historically treated its own lawmakers accused of ethical or criminal violations, which have for decades gone unexamined by the Ethics Committee that is supposed to keep the legislative body's integrity in check.

Lockman became chair of the Senate Ethics Committee at the start of this year.

When asked to comment on the apparent inconsistency, she said, "I can't really speak to the rationale that was used. But I would think that every legislator has a role to potentially play in filing a complaint."

Ethics investigations aren't required in the face of a criminal allegation or public pressure. Instead, a lawmaker has to file a complaint in order to spur an ethics inquiry into one of their colleagues, which is rare because politicians need each other's votes and don't want to jeopardize support for their agenda, especially in Delaware's Democratic-ruled, 62-person Statehouse.

Lockman declined to say when she or another lawmaker would file a complaint against Brown. Senate leaders plan to conduct an ethics review of Brown regardless of the outcome of his jury trial but stressed they won't consider tangible action against him until his case is adjudicated.

In the meantime, Senate leaders have punished Brown by chipping away at his legislative powers. After the verbal altercation in November, they removed Brown from the high-profile Bond Bill Committee, which is responsible for writing the annual infrastructure spending bill that recently exceeded $1 billion.

It followed Brown's arrest in the spring, where he was charged with offensive touching and disorderly conduct. In response, leadership stripped Brown of his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, then later removed him from the committee entirely.

According to police, Brown punched a woman and threw a glass of water at Taverna Rustic Italian Restaurant in Talleyville in May. His jury trial was originally set for Dec. 1 but has been postponed to Jan. 5.

Brown, a former Wilmington city councilman who was elected to the Senate in 2018, did not respond to a request for comment for this story. He represents Wilmington's District 2, which stretches from Edgemoor to New Castle in southeast Wilmington near the Delaware River.

THE INCIDENT: Sen. Darius Brown removed from legislative committee after altercation with colleague

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Committee has to first establish rules

The Ethics Committee first needs to establish rules for hearing an ethics case because those rules currently don't exist. While the House has its own rules for ethics proceedings, it's unclear why the Senate doesn't. 

Lockman said it's too soon to say whether there should be a baseline requirement for what spurs an ethics inquiry, such as a criminal arrest.

"It's not solely about Senator Brown," she said. "This is something that we feel it's important for the Senate in general."

Senators are subject to an ethics investigation if they are accused of violating 11 ethics rules laid out in the Senate rulebook — such as using their power for personal or private interest, accepting bribes, profiteering or engaging in behavior that disgraces the Senate or calls into question their fitness to hold office. The House has similar, but not identical guidelines.

Historically, lawmakers have waited until the next session to start the process of an ethics investigation, even when the investigated members in question were accused of wrongdoing in the off-season.

An inquiry won't necessarily mean Brown will face more punishments, either.

Senators could take no action against Brown if the Ethics Committee unanimously votes to dismiss a complaint, depending on their findings. At least one committee member would need to vote against dismissal for the 21-person Senate to take action via a majority vote.

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When lawmakers did decide to conduct ethics inquiries

The last time the Senate conducted an ethics inquiry against one of their own was in 1986 against then-Senate Minority Whip John Arnold, a Republican who quietly pushed a bill that would redraw district lines so that he could live outside his original district. Arnold resigned once the committee found he violated the state constitution.

Instead of removing Brown, senators could choose instead to punish him in lesser ways: such as stripping him of his legislative aides or taking away his special legislative license plate.

That almost happened in 2007 when a former House lawmaker filed a bill to officially censure former Rep. John Atkins, a Republican who faced his own ethics investigation following a misdemeanor charge for offensive touching and using his legislative position to skirt a drunken driving arrest.

Lawmakers would have stripped Atkins of his legislative identification card and license plate, along with requiring an alcohol evaluation and a $550 fine. But the bill was stricken. Atkins resigned shortly afterward.

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Recent allegations have gone unchecked

In recent years, lawmakers have avoided conducting ethics reviews into one of their own, even in the face of public pressure.

In 2019, Senate leadership chose not to launch an ethics investigation into Sen. Trey Paradee, a Dover Democrat who sponsored a controversial hotel tax in Kent County that raised questions over a possible conflict of interest because its revenue went solely to a nonprofit organization whose board Paradee's brother sat on.

Paradee insisted he did not know about his brother's involvement with DE Turf. Former Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, who chaired the ethics committee at the time before being voted out in the 2020 primary, at the time defended his decision not to investigate further.

He said the issue was "settled" because Paradee pledged to undo the hotel tax following an investigation by Delaware Online/The News Journal that found Paradee's brother was also championing an adjacent development with fortunes linked to DE Turf's when the bill passed.

This summer, House leadership unanimously voted to drop a complaint against Rep. Gerald Brady, the Wilmington Democrat who used an anti-Asian slur in an email. They said they would not pursue an investigation because Brady did not violate the law.

Rep. Andria Bennett, a Dover Democrat, also did not face any ethics inquiry or lose any legislative privileges following her arrest in December 2020 following a domestic dispute. Charges were dropped a few months later.

Senate Minority Whip Brian Pettyjohn, a Georgetown Republican who was arrested in 2017 for a felony gun charge when a Transportation Security Administration agent found a loaded handgun in his carry-on bag at a Maryland airport, also faced no repercussions nor an ethics inquiry.

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Unclear if hearing will be public

This summer's ethics hearing into Brady's email was behind closed doors.

Lockman said it's "premature" to say whether her committee will conduct Brown's hearing privately.

"We're very aware of the public interest," Lockman said. "But of course, there are some aspects that fall into the realm of personnel and things that would be a little bit more appropriate to have those conversations in a non-public manner."

John Flaherty, a board member of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, said the public should have the ability to file complaints and sit in on hearings, he said. 

"There's a penchant for secrecy which serves nobody," Flaherty said.

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Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. Reach her at (302) 324-2281 or Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.

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