Thursday, January 21, 2010

Senate panel weighs ethics rules

By Katherine Gregg

Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE — After 20 years at the Rhode Island State House, Sen. J. Michael Lenihan has his doubts about putting lawmakers in charge of policing the conduct of other lawmakers.

“I’ve seen opportunities for the Senate to police itself and it hasn’t,” said Lenihan, D-East Greenwich, on Wednesday, a few hours before a key Senate committee resumed its debate over ethics enforcement on Smith Hill, in the wake of a recent Rhode Island Supreme Court decision neutering the state Ethics Commission.

To illustrate his point, Lenihan recalled a closed-door meeting in early 2004 in the office of then-Senate President Joseph A. Montalbano that was “attended by virtually the entire Democratic Senate.” The subject: what to do about then-Sen. John. A. Celona, a North Providence Democrat who was ultimately convicted of selling the power and influence of his position at the State House to the state’s major health-care companies for personal gain.

With new revelations about Celona’s conduct coming to light on an almost daily basis, Lenihan said: “Six or seven of us called for his resignation,” but “frankly, those of us coming out against Senator Celona were given a hard time.”

“I don’t put that up to anything that is nefarious,” Lenihan said Wednesday. “But it serves to me as a practical example of that kind of reluctance — or unwillingness — to act against people [with whom] you have developed a personal relationship … [and] I’ve seen too many practical examples.”

But Lenihan never had to wage the battle he anticipated when the Senate Rules Committee met later in the day.

In the week since the panel last met, Senate leaders had retooled an earlier proposal to let the Senate adopt and enforce its own conflict-of-interest rules. “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?” said Sen. Christopher Maselli, the Johnston Democrat who chairs the committee.

By Wednesday, both Maselli and Senate Majority Leader Daniel Connors were saying the Senate never intended to end-run the Ethics Commission, but rather to create an interim-mechanism for overseeing — and if necessary, regulating — the conduct of its members until November, when voters will presumably get a chance to reinstate the power of the Ethics Commission over legislators.

The current gap stems from a June decision by the 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.

Both Lenihan and House Majority Leader Gordon Fox have promised to introduce legislation giving voters a chance to reinstate the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction. The Rules Committee made public two new proposals drafted by the Senate parliamentarian, former Sen. John Roney, to govern what happens between now and then.

One would allow the Rules Committee “to investigate and make recommendations to the Senate concerning … violations of the code of ethics not within the jurisdiction of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.” The other would add to the Senate rules the same basic conflict-of-interest prohibitions that exist within the state ethics code.

With Maselli promising an opportunity for public comment at a later meeting, there was no vote. But John Marion, executive director of Common Cause, said he remains concerned.

While he had no objection to the Senate adopting “internal ethics rules,” he said: “we don’t want them to have an excuse for not putting it before the voters.” He said “they should take that issue up first, and gain the faith of the voters, and then get their own house in order.”

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