Wednesday, April 22, 2009

ACLU backs ex-Sen. Irons in Ethics Case

By Katie Mulvaney

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union is backing former Senate President William V. Irons in his effort to persuade the state’s high court to let stand a ruling that the state Constitution protects lawmakers from ethics probes into their legislative acts.

The ACLU on Monday filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court supporting Irons’ position that the Constitution’s “speech in debate” clause prevents the Ethics Commission from questioning or investigating lawmakers based on their legislative activity. The brief challenges the commission’s arguments that a constitutional amendment, passed by voters in 1986 in response to cronyism and corruption, empowered it to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers by trumping the clause.

The ACLU wrote that the commission’s argument that the amendment implicitly limits the clause is “a launch down a slippery slope of eroding the civil liberties of all Rhode Islanders who come before the Ethics Commission, not just Mr. Irons.”

“Fundamental rights and liberties placed into our state Constitution many years ago should not be removed or rescinded by guesswork or subtle interpretation, which is what the Ethics Commission suggests,” Mark Freel, a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU, said in a news release. “Rather, those rights should remain intact, to protect all Rhode Islanders, until or unless they are repealed or modified by the very specific formal procedures in place for constitutional amendments.”

Irons abruptly resigned in 2003 after two decades in the Senate. The Journal disclosed that Irons, then chairman of the Senate committee that deals with health-care matters, had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions on a Blue Cross policy covering CVS workers. He had opposed pharmacy-choice legislation that CVS, to which he sold insurance to, wanted killed.

The Ethics Commission found probable cause that Irons violated the Code of Ethics after the watchdog group Operation Clean Government filed a complaint. 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 Jr. dismissed the ethics charges against Irons, finding that the “speech in debate” clause prevented the Ethics Commission from questioning or investigating lawmakers based on their legislative acts.

Darigan also ruled that the commission’s proceedings are civil, not criminal. He said Irons, who requested a jury trial on the charges, was not entitled one because, he said, he found no evidence that anyone had been tried for such crimes prior to the passage of the state Constitution.

The commission appealed the ruling. Irons is seeking a jury trial in the event the high court overrules Darigan regarding the speech-in-debate clause. The ACLU did not weigh in on that issue.

Common Cause Rhode Island, the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island and Operation Clean Government have all filed briefs supporting the commission. The Rhode Island Supreme Court will hear arguments May 13.

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