Monday, March 15, 2010

Poltical Scene: Ethics debate

Political Scene:

07:18 AM EDT on Monday, March 15, 2010
By Katherine Gregg and Randal edgar

Journal State House Bureau

Ethics debate

Are Rhode Island’s lawmakers capable of policing themselves in the absence of oversight by the state Ethics Commission?

Sen. Frank A. Ciccone III, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Oversight, thinks they are.

The Providence Democrat has sponsored two bills that would spell out conflicts of interest and improper use of office and give the Senate Rules Committee the power to “investigate and make recommendations” on possible violations that are outside the purview of the Ethics Commission.

Ciccone says the bills would allow senators to “police ourselves until such as time as the Ethics Commission can.” But they drew opposition at a Rules Committee hearing last week.

Robert Benson of Operation Clean Government said, “Ethics oversight of a body by a body doesn’t work.”

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause, questioned how “the Senate could go about doing this in an evenhanded manner” without an independent body handling the investigations.

The debate 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 state Constitution gives legislators immunity from prosecution by the Ethics Commission for “core legislative functions” such as voting and speaking.

Rules Committee members voted to hold Ciccone’s bills for further study, meaning they are going nowhere unless Ciccone asks for further consideration, said committee Chairman John Maselli, D-Johnston.

Maselli said the next step is to see what happens with a bill sponsored by Sen. J. Michael Lenihan, D-East Greenwich, that would give voters a chance to close the hole in state ethics law. House Speaker Fox has introduced a similar bill.

Maselli said it seems likely that if the change goes to voters they would approve it. But that still leaves the question of whether something should be done in the short term.

“We have a whole legislative session that’s going to go by,” he said.

1 comment: