Tuesday, March 23, 2010

RI lawmakers debate giving ethics panel more power

RI lawmakers debate giving ethics panel more power

By Eric Tucker Associated Press Writer / March 23, 2010

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Rhode Island's Constitution should be amended to allow the Ethics Commission to prosecute lawmakers for their votes, elected officials and advocates for good government testified on Tuesday.

A resolution introduced by House Speaker Gordon Fox would authorize a constitutional amendment to strengthen the quasi-judicial ethics panel so that lawmakers could be prosecuted for their votes and other legislative acts. The amendment would be decided by voters in a ballot question and, if approved, take effect next January.

The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the resolution on Tuesday.

The state Supreme Court -- in a decision upholding the dismissal of an ethics complaint against former Senate President William Irons -- last year shielded lawmakers from being prosecuted when they propose, debate and vote on bills or otherwise do their legislative jobs. The opinion relied on a constitutional provision known as "speech in debate," which reads: "For any speech in debate in either house, no member shall be questioned in any other place."

The resolution proposes adding the words, "except by the ethics commission," to the provision.

Critics say the Supreme Court's ruling weakened the commission's ability to police legislative misconduct and to target lawmakers who illicitly vote to advance their own interests or those of a business client.

"There is a loophole that has been exploited and that should not be allowed to stand," General Treasurer Frank Caprio, a Democratic candidate for governor, told the committee.

Other elected officials, including Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts and Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis, released letters in support of restoring the commission's power.

But some lawmakers said they were concerned the amendment would give too much power to the Ethics Commission, an unelected, appointed body with power to prosecute public officials and hold trial-like hearings over alleged ethics violations.

"If a representative does something wrong, the strongest power against him is the ballot box," said Rep. Scott Pollard, a Coventry Democrat. "To turn over authority of your building to an unelected body that probably 98 percent of the public doesn't know by name, doesn't know by face -- I think it's a dangerous concept."

That criticism was echoed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the proposed amendment was too broad.

"It affects speech, it affects debate," said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU state affiliate. "It is not just the vote."

The Ethics Commission emerged from a 1986 constitutional convention and was an effort to tighten ethics oversight of elected officials. Lawyers for the commission and other supporters say they believe the amendment that created the panel created a narrow exception to the "speech in debate" clause by making all state lawmakers subject to the ethics code.

"If the intention of creating the Ethics Commission was to govern the ethics of all public officials, then certainly the legislature's a significant chunk of all public officials in this state," John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, said in an interview before Tuesday's hearing.

The commission still has oversight of wrongdoing, like nepotism and financial disclosure violations. But leaving it unable to prosecute public officials for votes could have hampered some of its highest-profile cases, like the one against former Sen. John Celona, who in 2006 was fined a record $130,000 after admitting to ethics violations that partially involved his votes.

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