Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Update: RI House OKs ballot item to tighten ethics rules

Wed, Jun 02, 2010

Katherine Gregg

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- One after another, Rhode Island's state lawmakers rose from their seats on the House floor to defend their right to speak without having an "unelected'' Ethics Commission peering over their shoulders.

Then, the House approved - and sent to the Senate - a bill that would give voters a chance, in November, to reinstate the state Ethics Commission's power to investigate and prosecute state legislators.

The vote was 67-5 in favor of the bill introduced by new House Speaker Gordon D. Fox, early in the 2010 election-year session when he was still the House majority leader, vying for the top leadership post in the House.

The vote marked a victory for Fox, who had to win votes from a phalanx of dubious colleagues.

Before the bill passed, the House members voted 37-33 to defeat an amendment that would have excluded all of their speech from Ethics Commission jurisdiction.

The measure now goes to the full Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Daniel Connors has repeatedly questioned the need for any action, and said again recently: "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."

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 "speech in debate clause" in the state Constitution.

The clause states: "For any speech in debate in either House, no member shall be questioned in any other place."

High profile lawmakers had argued for years that this clause placed them beyond the reach of the Ethics Commission or its predecessor, including former House Speakers Matthew J. Smith, when he was accused of personally benefiting from a bill he supported to allow state workers to buy state pension credit for private school teaching, and John B. Harwood, when he rebuffed a subpoena to testify in a case involving the dismissal of a former Lottery director.

In 1984, the Rhode Island Supreme Court said the clause does more than immunize legislators against civil lawsuits for their utterances on the Senate and House floors. Supporting the refusal of House leaders to answer allegations of gerrymandering, the court said the privilege protects behind-the-scenes legislative deliberations, whether they take place at the State House or elsewhere.

But the high court's ruling in the Irons' case blasted opened the current hole in state Ethics Code enforcement; following the ruling, the commission took the position that it was no longer even allowed to issue advisory opinions to lawmakers.

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."

The Fox bill - and a matching Senate version sponsored by J. Michael Lenihan, D-East Greenwich - have an army of supporters.

A parade of candidates for high office joined the citizens' advocacy groups Common Cause, Operation Clean Government and the League of Women Voters in arguing that state lawmakers should be subject to 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.

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.

But the Fox bill faced opposition at every step along the way, with freshman Rep. Scott Pollard, D-Foster, declaring at the initial hearing in march: "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, 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 during a recent hearing on the matching Senate bill, at which Sen. John Tassoni, D-Smithfield, deplored the way the Ethics Commission is currently constructed as "a judge, jury and executioner."

Here is how the House members voted:

Voting yes
Ajello, D-Providence
Almeida, D-Providence
Brien, D-Woonsocket
Caprio, D-Narragansett
Carnevale, D-Providence
Carter, D-North Kingstown
Coderre, D-Pawtucket
Corvese, D-North Providence
Costantino, D-Providence
DeSimone, D-Providence
Diaz, D-Providence
Driver, D-Richmond
Edwards, D-Tiverton
Ehrhardt, R-North Kingstown
Fellela, D-Johnston
Ferri, D-Warwick
Fierro, D-Woonsocket
Flaherty, D-Warwick
Fox, D-Providence
Gablinske, D-Bristol
Gallison, D-Bristol
Gemma, D-Warwick
Giannini, D-Providence
Guthrie, D-Coventry
Handy, D-Cranston
Hearn, D-Barrington
Jackson, D-Newport
Jacquard, D-Cranston
Kennedy, D-Hopkinton
Kilmartin, D-Pawtucket
Lally, D-South Kingstown
Loughlin, R-Tiverton
MacBeth, D-Cumberland
Malik, D-Warren
Marcello, D-Scituate
Martin, D-Newport
Mattiello, D-Cranston
McCauley, D-Providence
McNamara, D-Warwick
Melo, D-East Providence
Menard, D-Lincoln
Naughton, D-Warwick
O'Neill, D-Pawtucket
Pacheco, D-Burrillville
Palumbo, D-Cranston
Petrarca, D-Lincoln
A. Rice, D-Portsmouth
M. Rice, D-South Kingstown
Ruggiero, D-Jamestown
San Bento, D-Pawtucket
Savage, R-East Providence
Schadone, D-North Providence
Segal, D-Providence
Serpa, D-West Warwick
Shallcross Smith, D-Lincoln
Silva, D-Central Falls
Sullivan, D-Coventry
Trillo, R-Warwick
Ucci, D-Johnston
Vaudreuil, D-Cumberland
Walsh, D-Charlestown
Wasylyk, D-Providence
Williams, D-Providence
Williamson, D-Coventry
Winfield, D-Smithfield

Voting no
Baldelli-Hunt, D-Woonsocket
DaSilva, D-East Providence
Newberry, R-N. Smithfield
Pollard, D-Foster
Watson, R-East Greenwich

Did not vote
Azzinaro, D-Westerly
Lima, D-CranstonMurphy, D-West Warwick

SOURCE: House roll call
(The original version of this story was published at 5:35 pm. Wednesday.)

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