Wednesday, March 24, 2010

R.I. ethics oversight debate resumes

R.I. ethics oversight debate resumes

01:00 AM EDT on Wednesday, March 24, 2010
By Katherine Gregg

Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE — The governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state have all sent letters urging the House Judiciary Committee to let voters decide, in November, whether they want to exempt state legislators from the Ethics Commission scrutiny that applies to every other public official in Rhode Island, from councilmen to cemetery commissioners.

In her letter, Lt. Gov. Elizabeth H. Roberts called ethics legislation introduced by new House Speaker Gordon D. Fox early in this year’s legislative session essential to restoring “the public’s faith and trust in government.”

State Treasurer Frank Caprio came to Tuesday night’s Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill in person to urge lawmakers to plug the so-called “Irons loophole” created by a dome-rattling Rhode Island Supreme Court decision last June.

The focus of their remarks was the Fox-sponsored bill to let voters amend the state Constitution, in November, to restore the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction over the 113 General Assembly members.

But one after another, the lawmakers themselves raised concerns about having an “unelected body” looking over their shoulders.

“I’ve been here a year and a half now,” said freshman Rep. Scott Pollard, D-Foster. “There aren’t any corrupt people in the building … you smile, but I know them and you don’t, OK?

“And if you do know them to be corrupt then I suggest that you call the attorney general’s office and seek [to have] them prosecuted because the people who serve, at least in my chamber, are good and honorable people.

“And this steals away the vote and the expertise that people bring to the room,” Pollard told spokesmen for the Rhode Island Tea Party and the citizens’ advocacy group Operation Clean Government, who had come to the State House to lobby for the bill.

Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, also voiced concerns about giving the Ethics Commission “virtually limitless authority to decide what constitutes a ‘conflict of interest’ or ethical misconduct when it comes to both legislators’ votes and their participation in the legislative process.”

As an example, he cited Republican Governor Carcieri’s effort four years ago to make “it illegal for a lawyer-legislator who performs criminal defense work to vote on just about any criminal justice legislation. … In practical terms, legislators could be barred from discussing or debating any of the issues about which they have the most expertise.”

Fox’s legislation was prompted by a June decision by the Rhode Island Supreme Court that dismissed ethics charges pending against former Senate President William V. Irons based on a novel reading of the state’s “speech in debate clause.”

Irons had been accused of using his public office to obtain financial gain for pharmacy giant CVS — a “business associate” — while collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance commissions from Blue Cross on a health-insurance policy for CVS employees in Rhode Island.

Irons’ lawyer argued — and the Supreme Court agreed — that the “speech in debate clause” insulates lawmakers from Ethics Commission scrutiny for any “core legislative act,” including “proposing, passing, or voting upon a particular piece of legislation.”

No vote was taken Tuesday on the fix-it legislation crafted by the citizens advocacy group Common Cause that Fox introduced on Feb. 4. Asked why he did not seek a vote, Fox said, through a spokesman: “I want to make sure that the language is correct before we ask voters to consider a Constitutional amendment. I want to review the testimony that will be offered tonight, both pro and con, and make sure we get it right.”

But some version of the ethics legislation appears headed for passage after more than a year in which the Ethics Commission has told lawmakers it can no longer give them even advisory opinions.

Most recently, Fox’s newly appointed House Labor Committee chairwoman Anastasia Williams asked the panel if her membership on the executive committee of the AFL-CIO and her chairmanship of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement posed a conflict.

On March 5, the Ethics Commission’s executive director Kent A. Willever wrote back: “Absent a Constitutional amendment to clarify the original intent of the 1986 Ethics Amendment, the Ethics Commission is without apparent authority to respond to your request for independent advice.”

Speaking for Common Cause, lawyer and onetime congressional candidate Kevin McAllister said the proposal is not aimed at giving the nine Ethics Commission members any more power than they “exercised from the period of 1986 to 2008.”

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