Thursday, May 27, 2010

Placing ethics panel issue on ballot advances

Providence Journal

Thursday, May 27, 2010

By Katherine Gregg

Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE — Voters would get their chance to reinstate the Ethics Commission’s power to investigate and prosecute state legislators under legislation that won the approval of a key House committee on Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Gordon D. Fox early in the 2010 legislative session when he was still House majority leader, cleared the House Judiciary Committee without any audible dissent two months after a rocky March hearing at which several freshmen legislators voiced umbrage at the notion of 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, at that March 23 hearing. “There aren’t any corrupt people in the building … 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.”

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.”

He repeated those concerns Wednesday during a hearing on a matching Senate version of the bill, at which Sen. John Tassoni, D-Smithfield, voiced his concern about the way the Ethics Commission is currently constructed as “a judge, jury and executioner.”

But a parade of candidates for high office have joined the citizens’ advocacy groups Common Cause, Operation Clean Government and the League of Women Voters to urge passage of the legislation. It would place legislators under the same Ethics Commission scrutiny that applies to every other elected official in Rhode Island, from the governor to the members of each local school board, zoning board and town council.

And Common Cause Executive Director John Marion told the lawmakers the proposal is not aimed at giving the nine-member Ethics Commission any more power than it had during its first two decades. He said 37 other states allow ethics oversight of their legislators.

The bill now goes to the full House for a vote, and then the Senate where Senate Majority Leader Daniel Connors again Wednesday questioned the need for any action, and said: “If a member of the Assembly were doing something illegal, they could be prosecuted right now in the U.S. District Court by the U.S. Attorney and be subject to penalties for violating the law like any other citizen.”

And two of the House Judiciary Committee members who voted for the Fox bill said they did so with reservations, hoping House leaders will back an amendment to shore up the “speech-in-debate” protection that insulates legislators from being sued for what they say.

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.”

In his dissent, Chief Justice Paul Suttell, a former member of the House of Representatives, cited the litany of scandals that led to the 1986 voter-mandated creation of the Ethics Commission, and said “a page of history is worth a volume of logic.”

On Wednesday, two Democratic candidates for attorney general added their voices to the chorus urging passage: state Rep. Peter Kilmartin, D-Pawtucket and Smithfield Councilman Stephen R. Archambault.

Archambault said: “Members of the General Assembly should be subject to the same Ethics Commission oversight as the rest of our state’s public officials. It is essential to rebuilding the public trust.”

Added Kilmartin: “Legislators working honestly on behalf of Rhode Islanders do not need a legal loophole to act as a shield. The proposed constitutional amendment will rightfully allow those who do not act honorably, ethically and legally to be prosecuted.”

The lawmakers are still filing their annual financial disclosure statements with the commission, so “there is still a significant measure of oversight that the Ethics Commission performs over the Assembly,” said Connors, hailing the filings as “the most important resource that the public has to sniff out any impure motives.”

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