Friday, January 15, 2010

Some RI lawmakers want to police their own ethics

Katherine Gregg

Providence Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Forget the Ethics Commission.

The Senate Rules Committee is considering a proposal to let the state Senate adopt its own conflict-of-interest rules, and police the behavior of its own members.

"If that is what the U.S. Senate does, and it is adequate for them, why isn't it adequate for the Rhode Island Senate?'' asks Sen. Christopher Maselli, the Johnston Democrat who chairs the committee.

Not everyone is enthralled with the idea.

"Common Cause opposes any plan to have the Rhode Island Senate police itself,'' says John Marion, executive director of the citizens' advocacy group. "Historically efforts by legislatures to monitor their behavior internally have been unsuccessful. One need look no further than the U.S. Senate, whose Ethics Committee has fallen into a partisan stalemate,'' Marion said.

The proposal was aired for the first time last week at a sparsely attended meeting of the Senate Rules Committee, which is taking its cues from the Senate's $53,019 a year parliamentarian, John Roney, the former senator who authored the "Roney amendment'' allowing the Ethics Commission to impose $5,000 fines on anyone who files a "frivolous'' complaint against a politician. It never has.

As a senator in the mid-1990's, Roney told colleagues: "These complaints are all too easily filed...They trigger immense investigations, and they do tremendous damage against whom they are filed." As a lawyer, Roney has also represented numerous clients before the commission, including Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis, who was fined $3,000 in December 2006 for soliciting contributions from town employees when he was still mayor of North Providence.

Maselli said there is no written proposal yet, but Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, is working on one, and Roney has advised the panel that Rhode Island is the only New England state where lawmakers do not have their own internal conflict-of-interest rules, and lots of states - and Congress - have taken it upon themselves to make sure their members comply.

The discussion stems from a June decision by the Rhode Island Supreme Court that effectively removed Rhode Island lawmakers from Ethics Commission scrutiny.

In a case involving former Senate President William V. Irons, the court said the "speech-in-debate" clause in the Rhode Island Constitution gives legislators immunity from prosecution by the Ethics Commission for "core legislative functions" such as voting and speaking. The decision marked a huge victory for Irons, who had been accused of voting on legislation in a way beneficial to a big client.

Other lawmakers - including House Majority Leader Gordon Fox - have promised to introduce legislation addressing the current gap. But Maselli said Roney told the Rules Committee he does not believe the Ethics Commission can, at this point, even consider a complaint against a legislator.

Maselli said his mind remains open to the alternative Common Cause is proposing: giving voters a chance in November to reinstate the Ethics Commission's authority over lawmakers, but that's months away.

Between now and then, "what does somebody do? Should we, at the very least, put something into effect [for] the interim?'' The debate will resume when Senate Rules meets again on Wednesday.

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