Advocates fear fate of RI ethics bill

Providence, R.I. – Good government advocates fear the state Senate may adjourn for the year without acting on a bill to restore the strength of the state ethics commission.

Voters created the state Ethics Commission in 1986 through a constitutional convention to monitor the ethical behavior of public officials. Common Cause Director John Marion says the commission still has an important role to play in Rhode Island.

"We think the Ethics Commission is a good tool, one of many tools to fight corruption," Marion says. "They're a good tool because they have their eye focused sharply on one thing and one thing only, which is financial conflict of interest."

Financial conflict of interest isn't an alien concept in the General Assembly. Consider Gerard Martineau. He's a former house majority leader who remains imprisoned for selling his Statehouse votes in a case that involved CVS and Blue Cross and Blue Shield. It's fair to say for the most part that the General Assembly hasn't exactly embraced the Ethics Commission. Once again.

"There's generally a feeling on the part of some that the Ethics Commission is a little too powerful, which of course, we disagree with because we think the independent ethics oversight body of the state of Rhode Island needs to be as powerful as it can reasonably be," Marion says.

But a state Supreme Court decision last year found that lawmakers are shielded by the so-called "speech in debate" clause in the state constitution. That decision effectively stripped the Ethics Commission of its ability to police legislative votes.

As a result, good government groups want the General Assembly to put a question on the November ballot that would allow voters to restore the commission's oversight authority.

"This should not be controversial. This to me is a no-brainer," says state Sen. Edward O'Neill of Lincoln. He was just one of two state senators who attended a Statehosue rally yesterday to urge the Senate to vote on the Ethics Commission bill. The other was Sen. Michael Pinga of West Warwick.

"I'd like to see it come to the floor for a vote just so we can see who votes for it and who votes against it," Pinga says. "I think that's more important than just letting it die in committee See where everyone stands!"

The House last week overwhelmingly passed the Ethics Commission bill, on a 67-to-five vote. But the Senate has yet to take up the legislation - and it's not clear that it will. Senate President Paiva Weed was in meetings yesterday afternoon and unavailable. And her spokesman didn't respond to WRNI's request for a comment for this story. But Larry Valencia, president of Operation Clean Government, says Paiva Weed has told him why she's opposed.

"She's of the opinion that the Senate can police itself," Valencia says. "It's not that she's against the Ethics Commission per se, but given the opportunity to review the situation and start anew she expressed reluctance to endorse going back to the status quo."

So ethics advocates like Valencia have focused their efforts on the house. Meanwhile, today's expected to be the last day of this year's final legislative session. So if the Senate doesn't act on the Ethics Commission bill, the public won't be able vote on the issue until 2012 - at the earliest.