Thursday, August 27, 2009

Health Care Could Be Final and Fitting Tribute

By: Ed Fitzpatrick

From President Obama and Bill Belichick, from Nancy Reagan and Liam Neeson, the tributes poured forth Wednesday as the world learned of the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy.

But there could be no greater tribute to the Massachusetts Democrat, who died at home on Cape Cod late Tuesday at age 77, than passage of “bipartisan health-care reform that includes some form of a public option,” national Common Cause President and CEO Bob Edgar said before boarding an afternoon flight to Rhode Island.

Edgar recalled working with Kennedy on issues related to children and poor people when Edgar was a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1987 representing a Pennsylvania district outside Philadelphia, and when he was general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ.

Since 2007, Edgar has headed Common Cause, a national nonpartisan “citizens lobby” based in Washington, D.C., and he was headed to Providence to meet with the board of Common Cause Rhode Island.

During his 47-year career in the Senate, Kennedy made health care his top priority, Edgar said. “I think if he had any disappointments in his life — while he was helpful in getting children covered in the [children’s health insurance] program and working on education issues for children — the one issue that has eluded him has been comprehensive health care,” he said.

So there’s no better way to honor Kennedy than to push forward with the health-care overhaul, Edgar said. “It’s so important because we now have 46 million Americans with no health insurance, we have insurance companies that often turn down people with preexisting health issues, and we have many children outside the health-care network.”

Edgar predicted Kennedy’s death will provide momentum. And Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-West Virginia, is already calling for the pending health-care legislation to be renamed for Kennedy.

But a Common Cause report warns, “Major health-care interests have spent $1.4 million per day this year lobbying Congress, so you can bet the legislative battle will not simply rest on the merits of each side’s argument.”

The June 24 report quotes former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich as saying, “Big PhRMA and Big Insurance are gaining ground in their campaign to kill the public option in the emerging health-care bill.” And the report concludes, “As the nation confronts a multi-trillion-dollar health-care system that continues to rise in cost while leaving millions without coverage, the lawmakers charged with drafting and then voting on reform will have their ears full from health industry lobbyists and their campaign coffers full from health industry cash.”

Edgar compared the health-care proposal to a big block of melting ice. “Town hall meetings have generated more heat than insight,” he said. But, he said, “I believe, hopefully, cooler heads will prevail as [members of Congress] face the serious challenge of doing the right thing and not acting in a partisan way.”

Edgar said he’d like the country to celebrate the Christmas and Hanukkah holiday with “a comprehensive health-care reform package signed by the president. I think this is the most important action since the passage of Social Security.”

Edgar said he’d also like to see us pay more attention to Kennedy than we paid to Michael Jackson when he died. “Kennedy had weaknesses as well as Michael did,” he said. “But, in the end, there will be more of a lasting legacy for Senator Kennedy.”

Especially if Congress marks Kennedy’s death by fulfilling his life’s work.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

R.I. Ethics Commission Explains Rules Against Nepotism

By Randal Edgar

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Islands’ rules on nepotism underwent a major revision two years ago. Standards that had long applied to married couples were expanded to include household members. People who obtained a job or promotion through the influence of a relative or household member could now be prosecuted.

But not until last week did the Ethics Commission issue what is known as a general advisory on the new rules — an easy-to-understand explanation of the rules that provides examples of the sorts of activities that are not allowed, or allowed.

The advisory makes it clear that personal relationships and influence over money, budgets, contracts, jobs and promotions can be a dangerous mix.

One example: A member of a town council that votes on zoning board appointments cannot take part in the nomination or appointment of his cousin-in-law to the zoning board.

Another example: A school board member whose step-brother is a member of a local union cannot participate in contract negotiations with that union.

Sometimes the examples allow involvement, to a point.

A city council member whose live-in domestic partner is a city employee and union member cannot participate in contract negotiations with that union but can vote to approve the negotiated contract as a whole, according to the advisory.

Katherine D’Arezzo, the commission’s senior lawyer, said the advisory is intended to answer questions the commission hears on a regular basis.

“They’re the questions we see all the time, so we try to spell it out a little bit more in depth than just a reading of the code would give you,” she said.

The 2007 code specifies which relationships are covered by the state’s ethics rules. The list reaches as far as step-sons-in-law and granddaughters-in-law and step-uncles and step-first cousins, in addition to adding the broad category of household members.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said the only relation that he sees missing is that of a spouse’s sibling’s spouse.

“We thought that they should amend the regulation to extend the definition, but that’s a bit picky,” he said.

The commission is also reviewing a general advisory on public officials and actions affecting their pay and benefits. That advisory will be before the board again next month, where it needs a second vote of approval to be issued, said Jason Gramitt, a commission staff attorney.

While many of the examples in the general advisory on nepotism seem straightforward, some are not so clear cut.

In the case of a city council member whose spouse is a unionized parks employee, the council member must request an advisory opinion before voting on a proposal to provide life insurance for all parks employees. If all parks employees would be similarly affected, the commission “could issue an advisory opinion allowing” the council member’s participation, the general advisory states.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Common Cause Releases Legislative Scorecard

In the eighth Common Cause Rhode Island Legislative Scorecard, lawmakers’ scores fell below their 2006 level, which were the lowest on record. State Senators, on average, backed Common Cause positions at a rate of 64 per cent, while State Representatives averaged 56 per cent. During the 2007-2008 legislative session, state officials were focused on addressing the budget crisis yet still passed legislation that thwarts the voters’ will on two major Constitutional reforms: Separation of Powers (SOP) and Judicial Merit Selection. On the positive side, the General Assembly passed the first significant Open Records bill since 1998.


* The printed version and earlier version of the legislative scorecard listed Todd R. Brien as State Representative from Woonsocket District 50 when it should have listed Jon D. Brien as State Representative from Woonsocket District 50.
* Two votes cast by Representative Steven John Coaty on January 9, 2008 were accidentally omitted from the printed and earlier versions of the legislative scorecard. Representative Coaty’s overall final score was listed as 76% and should have been listed at 79%. This omission did not change the overall House average score.

Both the electronic newsletter and spreadsheet were updated and labeled 08Aug14CORRECTED. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Below are the links to the legislative scorecard:
Click here for a copy of the 2008 Legislative Scorecard Newsletter (08Aug14CORRECTED)

Click 2008 Scorecard on the left panel to view the full House and Senate Spreadsheets.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Common Cause to Host Panel on Ethics Commission’s Future

By Katherine Gregg
Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The Common Cause chapter in Rhode Island is holding panel discussion on the ramifications of the Rhode Island Supreme Court decision in the case of former Senate President William V. Irons, and what it means for the future of the state's Ethics Commission.

In a 3-to-1 ruling, the court said Rhode Island Constitution's "speech-in-debate" clause gives legislators immunity from prosecution by the Ethics Commission for "core legislative functions" such as voting and speaking. The decision marked a victory for Irons, who had been accused of voting on legislation in a way beneficial to pharmacy giant CVS while collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance commissions from Blue Cross on a health-insurance policy for CVS employees in Rhode Island.

The panel will be moderated by Brown professor and ethics commission member Ross Cheit. Panelists will include Ethics Commission chairwoman Barbara Binder, lawyers Mark Freel and Tom Bender, the author of the ACLU and Common Cause briefs filed in the case; Ethics Commission lawyer and education coordinator Jason Gramitt; Common Cause executive director John Marion; and former Senate parliamentarian John Roney, the former Senator who championed a famously controversial law.

The so-called Roney Amendment, passed in 1998, allows the Ethics Commission to slap citizens with fines of up to $5,000 for filing "frivolous, unreasonable or groundless'' ethics complaints against a public official.

The Sept. 16 discussion will be held at Smith Buonanno Hall on the Brown University campus. More information about the panel discussion is available from

Monday, August 3, 2009

Advocates Push to Revamp Magistrate-Selection Process

By Katie Mulvaney

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — Their ranks have included the wife of a former House speaker, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman’s sister and staff members of key state legislators, sparking criticism that the magistrate selection process is laced with politics.

And now matching bills have been submitted in the House and Senate that would subject magistrates to the same vetting as judges to ensure, supporters say, their selection is based on merit, not politics. They are backed by the government watchdog group Common Cause Rhode Island and the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island.

“I think it’s the fairest way to appoint magistrates, that they undergo the same rigorous review,” said Rep. Donna M. Walsh, a Charlestown Democrat who sponsored a similar bill that died in committee last year.

The measures would take the appointing authority for the state’s 20 magistrates away from the Superior Court presiding justice, Family and District Court chief judges and the Supreme Court chief justice.

Instead, magistrates, often a steppingstone to judgeships, would be selected in the same manner as judges. Interested individuals would apply to the Judicial Nominating Commission, which would forward a list of three to five candidates to the governor after a review and interview process. The governor would than have 21 days to submit a nominee to the state Senate for approval.

The bills come as the Senate on March 2 confirmed Superior Court Presiding Justice Joseph F. Rodgers’ selection of Patrick T. Burke to fill the opening created by Joseph A. Keough’s retirement as special magistrate in December. Burke, 45, has served as deputy assistant to House Speaker William J. Murphy since 2003.

“Our belief is that merit selection is broken,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause. He looks to other recent appointments that include R. David Cruise, former Senate President Joseph A. Montalbano’s chief of staff, as Traffic Tribunal magistrate, and William R. Guglietta, chief legal counsel to House Majority Leader Gordon D. Fox, D-Providence, as the tribunal’s chief magistrate.

“Now, we have Murphy’s aide?” Marion said.

Magistrates serve 10-year terms that can be renewed by the Senate and typically earn a base salary of $128,650, according to Craig N. Berke, court system spokesman. They have some of the same powers as judges, generally presiding over arraignments, motions and sentencing in uncontested cases. They do not hear trials, Rodgers said.

Rodgers defended his choice of Burke, saying it was no more political than then Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee’s backing of former state Supreme Court Justice Robert G. Flanders for the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006 or any other judicial appointment.

“Does that necessarily mean it’s bad? I don’t think so,” he said.

He chose Burke from among 27 applicants, he said, for his previous experience working with the pre-arraignment calendar he would be handling as magistrate and because he was well-respected as Murphy’s deputy assistant.

Rodgers said he wouldn’t object to placing magistrate selection under the JNC, but that the law should be written so the choice is made in consultation with the chief judges because the positions are specialized. For example, he said, magistrates assess sex offenders’ risk of reoffending, handle fines and restitution, and deal with juvenile truancy — duties that should not be relegated to judges.

“I honestly believe the chief judge of the respective courts knows better what the needs of the particular court might be,” he said.

Walsh first took aim at magistrate selection as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2000, when she sponsored legislation to change the confirmation process. She said it wasn’t politically popular at the time because then-House Speaker John Harwood’s wife, Patricia Lynch Harwood, had just been appointed Superior Court magistrate.

“I’m not quite sure what the resistance is,” she said, adding, “I think it’s a way of getting around things a little bit.”

Common Cause hopes the bill gains traction this time around.

Magistrate selection, Marion said, defies the changes to the judicial selection that voters approved in 1994 after two Supreme Court chief justices resigned amid scandal. Rhode Islanders, he said, called for appointments based on ability, not politics.