Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ethics panel must have authority over legislators

On April 13th, the following Op-ed by John Marion and Amy Goins appeared in the Newport Daily News.

Ethics panel must have authority over legislators

by John Marion and Amy Goins

Should members of the General Assembly, our most important elective body, be immune from the ethics laws that govern all other elected and appointed officials? According to the March 2nd Guest View column by Steven Brown of the American Civil Liberties Union, the answer is yes. Common Cause couldn’t disagree more. Not only do we believe that Mr. Brown is incorrect in asserting that the Ethics Commission is anathema to a democratic system of government, we assert that strong ethics enforcement is important to an economically vibrant state.

But first, some background is in order. In June of 2009 the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that the “speech in debate” clause of the state Constitution provides immunity from prosecution for members of the General Assembly. The Court reasoned that this immunity trumps the ethics amendment that was passed in 1986 and created a commission with jurisdiction over “all elected and appointed officials.”

In response to that ruling, Common Cause has proposed a constitutional amendment be put on the ballot to allow for a limited repeal of the “speech in debate” clause to restore the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission. A resolution to put such a repeal on the ballot passed the Rhode Island House of Representatives on a vote of 68-5 last year before dying in the Senate. This year those resolutions are sponsored by Representative Michael Marcello (D-Scituate) in the House (H 5410) and Senator Edward O’Neill (I-Lincoln) in the Senate (S 634).

The crux of the ACLU’s argument against our amendment is that the Ethics Commission as an “unelected body” should not have their jurisdiction restored because they have the power to “adopt a legally enforceable code of ethics.” This should not be a matter of concern. There are many examples where the state cedes authority to appointed officials. The entire judicial branch, thankfully, is chosen exclusively by appointment. Appointed boards and commissions that perform quasi-legislative and quasi-judicial functions exercise much of the authority of the executive branch.

In fact, the “unelected” nature of the body is exactly what makes the Commission effective. The alternative used in many other states, and in the United States Senate, is an internal ethics body; the “self-policing” model. Those models fail because of a lack of independence. It is against human nature to punish oneself.

Mr. Brown bolsters his argument by citing a letter that Governor Carcieri sent requesting that the Commission dramatically broaden the definition of a conflict of interest. What Mr. Brown fails to mention is that anyone can write a letter to the Commission asking them to make changes to the Code of Ethics. Again, a perceived weakness is actually a strength. Any citizen of Rhode Island can file a complaint, or propose a regulatory change.

This is not just an academic debate over the meaning of representative democracy. Every citizen of Rhode Island should be concerned about the lack of jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission because conflict of interest and political corruption are real threats to our economic well-being. Recent history shows that the legislature needs a vigorous ethics watchdog. In the last decade now Speaker Gordon Fox, former Senate President Joseph Montalbano, and former Senate Corporations Committee Chair John Celona, were all fined by the Ethics Commission. A robust watchdog of legislative ethics is clearly needed.

Restoring the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over state legislators will also help to counteract Rhode Island’s image as a haven for corruption and lead to a stronger economy. Political corruption results in significant economic costs to states. In states where corruption is rampant, businesses face pressure to bribe public officials, and an uncertain business climate prevails. . Because of the higher cost of doing business, firms are discouraged from operating in corrupt states. Corruption is directly correlated to negative job growth. Restoring the Ethics Commission’s oversight of state legislators is not only good public policy, but also good for our economy.

While a dizzying number of initiative are being considered at the State House, we hope those doing the peoples’ business don’t forget this important issue. Until the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission is restored the General Assembly operates without a needed mechanism for accountability.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Common Cause and Operation Clean Government call on Governor Chafee to reconsider Ethics Commission Appointment

On Thursday, April 14th, Common Cause and Operation Clean Government called on Governor Chafee to reconsider his recent appointment of a police chief to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. Both groups feel strongly that an independent ethics watchdog should not have members who are also public officials. Here is our press release:

Common Cause Rhode Island and Operation Clean Government call on Governor Lincoln Chafee to reconsider his appointment of Barrington Police Chief John M. LaCross to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. "We question the legality of Chief LaCross's appointment to the Ethics Commission given the statutory restrictions on who may be placed on this important body," says John Marion, executive director of Common Cause. "Our objection has nothing to do with Chief LaCross," Marion continues, "rather we are concerned with whether his appointment violates the state law barring those who hold public office from sitting on the Commission."

Section 36-14-8 (f)(1) of the Rhode Island General Laws prohibits anyone who sits on the Commission to "Hold or campaign for any other public office." Common Cause believes that statute disqualifies Chief LaCross from sitting on the Commission since Chief LaCross already holds a "public office" as the police chief in Barrington. The obvious intent of the prohibition from serving in another public office while serving on the Ethics Commission is to keep the members of the Ethics Commission as unbiased as possible, consistent with the Constitutional mandate (Article III, Section 8) that members of the Commission be both independent and non-partisan. The proposed appointment of Chief LaCross would contradict both the statutory prohibition and the intent of the framers of the Constitution and would be a significant departure from the goal of an independent Ethics Commission. "Since all elected and appointed state and municipal officials are subject to the ethics code, Operation Clean Government is concerned about appointing any serving public official to the Ethics Commission," says Margaret Kane, president of Operation Clean Government.

The Rhode Island Ethics Commission was created in 1986 by the voters of the state following that year's constitutional convention. Article III, Section 8 of the Constitution calls for an "independent non-partisan ethics commission." Common Cause has fought for more than two decades to ensure the Commission maintains its independence. Under state law only Governor Chafee can reconcile this problem, so Common Cause asks that he do so immediately, before Chief LaCross is sworn in as a member of the Commission.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Let's Move Forward on Legislative Staff Issues

In recent weeks there has been an uproar over raises for staff of the Rhode Island General Assembly. Handling personnel of the legislative branch has been an issue for decades in Rhode Island, and was part of a focus of commissions in both the 1980s and 1990s. As a result of the work of those commissions we have seen drastic reforms of other parts of the General Assembly, including the elimination of legislative pensions, and a downsizing in the number of lawmakers. It's time to finish the work by focusing on legislative personnel.

Common Cause, along with the coalition Citizens for an Accountable Legislature has proposed a possible solution. We propose the creation of a position classification plan by a joint commission of the General Assembly. Such a plan would help organize the staff in a transparent and accountable manner by requiring job descriptions, pay scales, and an organizational hierarchy. Using such a plan to manage its employees will allow the General Assembly to create a career ladder for all legislative employees.