Friday, April 9, 2010

The complicated world of political ethics

The complicated world of political ethics
on 04-04-2010

Politics as Usual by Jim Baron

There is a certain academic argument that could be made — I know because I sat (for hours) and listened to members of the House Judiciary Committee try to make it a couple of weeks ago — that there is a downside to giving the R.I. Ethics Commission the power to oversee the legislative acts of General Assembly members.

I enjoy a good academic argument as much as the next fellow, but I have to come down on the side of making lawmakers answerable to someone for actions that are unethical. Yes, I am familiar with the argument that they are answerable to voters every two years but 1) sometimes voters aren’t all that vigilant, and may not remember the headlines from an incident a year and a half before, and 2) in too many cases, General Assembly members don’t have an opponent, which leaves voters with no real recourse.
Yes, this power could be taken too far. The entire constitutional provision that creates the Ethics Commission is a minefield of opportunities for it to go too far. But while you can fault the Ethics Commission for many things since its creation in 1986, overzealousness is not one of them. To the contrary, if anything the panel has been too timid too often in dealing with public officials who have crossed the line, or danced perilously close to it.

While it is crystal clear that any vote legislators make that enrich themselves, their families (don’t forget nieces-in-law), their employers or business associates should be fair game for Ethics Commission action, I understand the problem lawmakers have with what they say and where making them liable to an ethics investigation or prosecution.

Yes, merely speaking about a matter in which one has a personal interest could be considered a transgression — if a legislator, particularly one in a leadership position or who is a committee chairman does not actually vote but (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) stands up and states their position before the vote that pretty well meets the definition of unethical.

But say a legislator is an electrician, and there is a bill before the assembly that somehow regulates the behavior of electricians. If that legislator is walking through the corridor of the Statehouse talking to a legislator buddy about how this is a stupid proposal that shows no knowledge of how electricians work (not out of the realm of possibility) is that legislator violating the ethics code? Should he or she have to spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on a lawyer (not out of the realm of possibility) to defend that comment before the ethics commission, with all the attendant bad press that would attract?

That is a closer call.

It not only compromises freedom of speech, but the whole idea of having citizen-legislators is so that there will be someone who knows about being an electrician when bills about electricians come up.

We have to be always vigilant for conflicts of interest, but there also has to be some factor for giving officials who were elected by the people in their districts the benefit of the doubt in some instances.

This is why who you vote for is so important.

If there is such pervasive mistrust of the people who are elected on the part of the people who elect them, the system is badly broken. The consent of the governed becomes hopelessly skewed.

The best answer is to elect people we can trust, because at some level you need to trust the people you elect.

Sometimes that trust is misplaced. That is why a vigorous free press is so important to our form of government and it is why we need an Ethics Commission. That is why Sen. Frank Ciccone’s proposal to have the Senate police the actions of its own members doesn’t pass the laugh test.

So House Speaker Gordon Fox’s proposed constitutional amendment bringing the legislative actions of legislators under the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission should go on the ballot and people should vote for it.

But we also have to be careful that the some future Ethics Commission doesn’t try to take its power too far and infringe on the real and important prerogatives that the representatives of the people should have.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guards themselves?

That is an important question when you give one unelected panel like the Ethics Commission the power to write laws, enforce and execute those laws, prosecute people for violating those laws, pass judgment on their guilt or innocence, and penalize them with fines or removal from office.

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