Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ethics wasn't Senate priority

Warwick Beacon

Jun 15, 2010

If there were ever a piece of legislation that could be considered a no-brainer, it would have to be the “ethics” bill submitted by House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence).

The bill, which passed the House of Representatives by a 67-5 margin, would have asked Rhode Islanders to reinstate the power of the Ethics Commission to prosecute and investigate members of the General Assembly who use the public offices they hold to benefit themselves and their family members.

The State Supreme Court ruled in 2009 in the William Irons case that legislators could not be held responsible for their votes in the legislature thanks to the “speech and debate clause” of the state constitution. Irons, a former Senate president, had been accused of using public office to obtain financial gain for CVS and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Fox’s bill would have created a ballot question that would have asked Rhode Island voters to change the constitution to restore that power to the Ethics Commission.

The Senate Leadership, however, had other ideas. The body’s leadership, Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed (Jamestown, Newport) and Majority Leader Daniel Connors (Cumberland), refused to bring the measure up for a vote, and the rank-and-file members didn’t press them for a vote, which means the bill died.

The two argued that the bill might conflict with the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution and that federal laws already outlaw bribery.

Both arguments are flimsy. First of all, those ethics rules already apply to other public officials such as mayors, governments, city workers, etc. Good government groups like Common Cause, Operation Clean Government, and the League of Women Voters argued that those same rules that apply to other government officials should also apply to the legislature.

We agree.

The issue isn’t about either speech or debate. The 1st Amendment allows for free speech, but it doesn’t mean that people can use free speech to commit fraud. It doesn’t mean that people can use free speech to commit bribery.

And while it is true that the federal government does have the ability to prosecute crimes like bribery, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the Ethics Commission armed with the power to prosecute for that offense.

What does hurt, however, is that the Senate didn’t think it was a priority to affirm the highest possible standards for ethical behavior. Hopefully when the bill is reintroduced in the next session, there will be a different outcome.

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