Bill aims to amend R.I. constitution

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011

A bill was introduced in the State Senate yesterday to amend the state constitution and restore the Rhode Island Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction over legislators.

State Sen. Edward O’Neill, I-Lincoln, North Providence and Pawtucket, introduced the Senate version of the bill, which state Rep. Michael Marcello, D-Scituate and Cranston, originally introduced in the House of Representatives Feb. 15. The ethics commission currently has the power to investigate and prosecute all state officials other than members of the General Assembly. If passed, the bill would restore powers to the commission that the Rhode Island Supreme Court removed in 2009, when it ruled 3-1 that the speech-in-debate clause of the state constitution — which has historically exempted legislators from civil suits or prosecution when proposing bills — made lawmakers immune to the Code of Ethics during legislative acts.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, an organization that promotes ethics in politics and is a proponent of the bill, said the state has the “strongest ethics commission in the country,” but that without authority over the 113 members of the General Assembly, it is not strong enough.

“Given the long history of corruption (in Rhode Island), it makes sense that we should have a powerful ethics commission,” he said.

Most recently, three former North Providence city councilmen pled guilty to charges of bribery and corruption this week. The councilmen resigned last May after being indicted twice.

North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi called reinstating the commission’s authority over the General Assembly “a great idea.” He said the situation in North Providence was “embarrassing” and “exhausting.”

“It takes you away from managing government, and that’s why we’re here,” Lombardi said.

But some worry that giving more jurisdiction to the commission would vest too much power in the body.

Ross Cheit, associate professor of political science and public policy and vice-chair of the ethics commission, said he was concerned about the commission having both the ability to define the code of ethics and to enforce it.

Cheit also said the commission deals largely with conflicts of interest that arise in the General Assembly because the state’s legislators only work part-time. For example, the case that led to the 2009 Supreme Court decision involved a state senator who received significant commissions for selling health insurance to CVS employees while opposing legislation in the Senate that would be detrimental to the Rhode Island-based pharmacy chain.

“We have a rich history of corruption in this state,” Cheit said, but the most well-known cases involve criminal violations — which would be handled by prosecutors, not the ethics commission.

Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, said legislators could be “paralyzed” by the bill. He said he feared they would refrain from voicing their concerns and those of their constituents to avoid punishment for conflict of interest.

Brown said he believes the speech-in-debate clause is important because it protects legislators from harassment. The bill would give the ethics commission “unbridled discretion” over what legislators could say in public settings, Brown said. “We think this sort of power should not be vested in one agency.”

He said there are ways to fight corruption in the state without giving the ethics commission free reign, like creating separate divisions of the commission for defining and enforcing ethical standards.

The House passed a similar bill introduced by Speaker Gordon Fox last year, but the Senate did not vote on it.

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