Thursday, March 19, 2009

Former state Senate President William V. Irons Still Wants Right to Jury trial

By Katie Mulvaney

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — Hedging his bets should the state Supreme Court reverse a lower court’s dismissal of ethics charges against him, former Senate President William V. Irons is asking the high justices to overturn a ruling by the same court denying him a jury trial on those counts.

Irons argues the charges, which accuse him of breaking the state code of ethics by using his public office to financially benefit his business associate, pharmaceutical giant CVS, were premised on alleged misconduct while he was in office. There is ample evidence, he said, that claims of misconduct against public officials were considered criminal before the passage of the state Constitution in 1842, and that, therefore, he should be entitled to a jury trial.

“Whatever the label is on it today, it’s still criminal by common law,” John A. Tarantino, his lawyer, said. “If you have the right to a trial by jury, it just doesn’t go away.”

Irons asks the Supreme Court in a brief filed Tuesday to uphold his right to a jury trial, should the court overturn a Superior Court decision dismissing the ethics complaints. Tarantino did not elaborate on why Irons would choose to have a jury hear the charges, instead of the Ethics Commission, which typically considers ethics violations.

Irons, an insurance salesman, abruptly resigned on Dec. 31, 2003, after two decades in the state Senate. He had opposed pharmacy-choice legislation that CVS, which he had sold insurance to, wanted killed. The Journal disclosed that Irons, then chairman of the Senate committee that handled health care, had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions since 1997 on a Blue Cross policy covering CVS workers in Rhode Island.

The Ethics Commission found probable cause that Irons broke the Code of Ethics after a complaint was launched by two members of the watchdog group, Operation Clean Government. The next step would typically have been a hearing before the commission. Irons, however, went to court in an attempt to block the commission prosecution.

In October, Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan dismissed ethics charges against Irons, finding that the “speech in debate” clause of the state Constitution prevented the Ethics Commission from questioning or investigating lawmakers based on their legislative acts.

Darigan also ruled that the commission proceedings are civil, not criminal. He said that Irons was not entitled to a trial because the judge found no evidence that anyone had been tried for such crimes prior to the passage of the state Constitution.

Irons has said that shouldn’t matter.

The Ethics Commission on Tuesday filed its brief asking the court to overturn Darigan’s ruling. The commission asserts an amendment to the Constitution, passed by voters in 1986 in response to rampant cronyism and corruption, empowered it to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers.

The commission recognizes the “speech-in-debate” clause still provides legislators with protections from private lawsuits for their legislative acts, said Jason Gramitt, commission lawyer, but the 1986 amendment gave the commission authority to question state leaders.

“The 1986 Constitutional Convention happened for a reason,” he said. “The people were dissatisfied with the way things were going.”

Darigan, in his October decision, noted he had checked the records of the 1986 Constitutional Convention and found no sign that the delegates wanted to take away the centuries-old principle of legislative immunity.

The commission argues that the court was wrong to rely solely on references to the clause instead of “numerous, unambiguous” evidence of the framers’ intent to have it regulate the General Assembly’s conduct.

Common Cause Rhode Island together with the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, and Operation Clean Government, are seeking to weigh in on the commission’s behalf. They argue the decision defies the intent of the 1986 amendment to empower an independent, nonpartisan commission to question legislators’ actions, and to discipline, when necessary.

The Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union has asked to be a friend of the court in support of Irons. Executive Director Steven Brown said his group hopes to challenge the essence of the argument that voter approval of the 1986 constitutional amendment essentially supersedes other constitutional provisions.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court will hear arguments May 13. Irons and the commission must respond to each other’s briefs by April 30.

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