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Legislature's Ethics Embarrassing

While two state senators embarrassed themselves in Barrington, legislators voted to keep themselves immune from much of RI Code of Ethics.

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The same week that two senior state senators embarrassed themselves with the Barrington Police, their colleagues at the General Assembly voted once again to keep legislators immune from enforcement of much of the Code of Ethics set up in 1986.

That code forbids all elected and appointed state and municipal officials from using the power of their office to achieve financial gain for themselves, their families and their business associates.

Thanks to a legal loophole, however, it is no longer enforceable on legislators (at least not for what they say or how they vote in the General Assembly).

For the past three years groups such as Operation Clean Government (OCG), Common Cause RI, RI Statewide Coalition (RISC) and the League of Women Voters have been pressuring House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed to close what is known as “the Irons loophole” (details below).

However, on April 3, the House Judiciary Committee voted to bury Rep. Mike Marcello’s H7603, (Restoring Ethics Commission Jurisdiction over the Legislature). 

On March 8, the Senate Judiciary Committee had similarly voted 5 to 2 to hold Senator Ed O'Neill’s companion bill for further study, hoping to kill any chance that a public referendum on closing this loophole might take place this November.

RISC Executive Director Harriet Lloyd presents the Barrington incident as a clear reminder that it’s not particularly effective for the Legislature to regulate itself concerning ethical behavior by lawmakers.

“The Senate President [was] called upon to react to the arrest of her own Senate Majority Leader and then dole out senate discipline decisions to another prominent senator for troubling statements and behavior that many viewed as an outright attempt to misuse his legislative authority,” Lloyd notes.

That behavior by Senator Ciccone left the Senate President in an awkward and, we believe, compromised position. It would be better for all concerned if an independent third party had the authority to act in such cases.

Unfortunately, our legislators encourage the enforcement of this code on all state officials and municipal workers, but insist those same rules do not apply to themselves because of another provision in the state constitution.

What kind of a message are these legislators sending? They are giving new life to George Orwell’s observation in Animal Farm that, “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.”

How can our elected representatives expect other state officials to obey these ethics laws if the legislators maintain they are not subject to the same scrutiny?

This is far more than a moral issue. Studies have shown that a perceived climate of corruption is a disincentive for businesses to relocate to an area. In these tough times, we need every new job we can create—yet, corruption is also one of the strongest factors inhibiting job growth.

In 2004, economist Steven P. Lanza reported in the Connecticut Economy Quarterly that the effect of corruption was 30% greater than that of taxes, implying that honest government may be even more important than a favorable tax environment in economic development.

So, how did this loophole exempting legislators from independent scrutiny come about?

For 18 years, the system operated under the belief that legislators were included in the phrase, “all elected and appointed state and municipal officials.”

However, in 2004 former Senate President William Irons faced charges of ethics violations, as demonstrated by his votes on legislation that benefited his employer and other clients. He sued, arguing that the “speech-in-debate” clause in the state constitution meant the Ethics Commission could not use the way he voted as proof of his malfeasance.

The Superior Court ruled in his favor in 2008. In 2009 the Ethics Commission appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Justice Paul Suttell concluded that the 1986 ethics amendment creates a narrow exception to the speech-in-debate immunity, and that legislators are in fact subject to Ethics Commission oversight.  Suttell got it right, but sadly his colleagues thought otherwise. They voted 3-1 to uphold the lower court decision -- giving new life to the Animal Farm observation.

And how did our Legislature respond?

Instead of doing the right thing and eliminating this newly-created loophole, Senate leadership saw this decision as a way to avoid independent scrutiny. Their preference was to allow the Senate Rules Committee to handle ethics violations. In other words, the fox should guard the henhouse. 

Perhaps it’s a sad indictment of our society, but experience has shown that self-policing just doesn’t work.

Speaker Fox did the right thing in sponsoring ethics resolution H7357 last year — but what happened this year? He has been conspicuously silent on the issue.

Continued stalling and foot-dragging can only be interpreted as blatant disregard for the 143,973 voters who approved the original ethics amendment.

In 29 other states an independent Ethics Commission has jurisdiction over the state legislature. Let’s not pride ourselves on being a state that does not.

More importantly, we urge you to reach out to your elected officials and tell them to support closing this loophole. Call House Speaker Gordon Fox at 401-222-2466 and Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed at 401-222-6655. You can reach Governor Chafee at 401-222-2080.

Margaret Kane, Barrington, President, Operation Clean Government

NOTE: The operative clause from the 1986 Ethics Amendment states, “No person subject to this Code of Ethics shall use in any way his or her public office or confidential information received through his or her holding any public office to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for him or herself or any person within his or her family, any business associate, or any business by which the person is employed or which the person represents.”

Jedd Sullivan April 18, 2012 at 02:43 PM
It's a shame when we have to legislate ethics, but clearly this loophole needs an iron door bolted on !
Michael Chippendale April 18, 2012 at 05:02 PM
I think that the 6th paragraph is worded in a very misleading manner. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee we did not vote to "bury the bill" as indicated in the column. The bill - as is customary with ALL bills, was "held for further study". That does not indicate the future outcome of any bill and I am confident, and hopeful that we will in fact put that bill up for a vote and pass it. There were some minor disagreements with wording (which is why bills are typically "held for further study") but that will be straightened out and I have every reason to believe that we will be voting on that bill in committee.

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