Friday, February 5, 2010

Bill would allow R.I. voters to close ethics loophole

By Katherine Gregg

Journal State House Bureau
PROVIDENCE — House Majority Leader Gordon D. Fox has introduced a bill to give voters a chance to close a newly carved hole in state ethics law that insulates state lawmakers from scrutiny and prosecution by the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.

Fox said he introduced the bill because he believes it was “the clear intent of voters when they approved the creation of the Ethics Commission to give the commission power over all government officials in the state, without an exception for legislators.”

The current gap stems from a June 2009 decision by the state Supreme Court that effectively removed 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.

Fox, who has had his own tangles with the Ethics Commission, said: “This legislation will allow voters to reaffirm that they mean for the Ethics Commission to have the same jurisdiction over members of the legislature that they have over all other public officials, and I’m confident that they’ll approve it and set the record straight.”

Sen. J. Michael Lenihan, D-East Greenwich, has promised to introduce comparable legislation in the Senate.

Fox is the chosen successor to House Speaker William J. Murphy, who has signaled plans to step down from the podium before the year is out, and perhaps sooner.

Fox’s most visible challenger for the job — Rep. Gregory Schadone, D-North Providence — has questioned Fox’s judgment in light of reports in The Sunday Journal about Fox’s business partnership with a nightclub owner, while Fox sat on the Providence licensing board. “People who care about ethics and good government do not put themselves in a position where they have a financial relationship with people they are regulating,” Schadone said in a statement.

But the attention of the citizens advocacy groups Common Cause and Operation Clean Government were focused Thursday on Fox’s introduction of the ethics legislation they helped to craft.

“Common Cause is very pleased that Majority Leader Fox has agreed to sponsor our legislation restoring the General Assembly to the full jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission. In 2004, Common Cause worked closely with Leader Fox to strengthen lobbying disclosure laws, and we are happy to again be partnering with him on another important piece of ethics legislation,” said Common Cause Executive Director John Marion.

“It is our hope that, with his leadership, the General Assembly will pass this legislation, putting on the ballot, this November, the question whether legislators should have partial immunity from the state’s ethics laws,” he said.

Republican Governor Carcieri also commended Democrat Fox, D-Providence, for submitting the proposed November 2010 ballot measure.

Carcieri issued a statement that said: “Restoring the Ethics Commission jurisdiction over the General Assembly will help to regain confidence and trust of the people of Rhode Island. The intention of the voters was always to hold all elected officials, including members of the House and Senate, to the same high level of ethical standards.

“I strongly urge the General Assembly to act immediately and pass this important resolution, giving voters the opportunity to set the record straight,” said Carcieri, adding that he is “confident they will approve this ballot measure and insist that all elected officials be accountable for their actions.”

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