Common Cause of Rhode Island is giving qualified support to a new proposal introduced by state Senator James Sheehan (D-North Kingtown) to restore state Ethics Commission oversight of the General Assembly.
Sheehan's bill, which has attracted 22 co-sponsors, would ask voters through a constitutional amendment to decide the powers and makeup of the Ethics Commission. A 2009 state Supreme Court decision stripped the commission of its ability to police legislative behavior, and efforts to bolster the commission have languished since then.
Common Cause's executive director, John Marion, says his organization prefers its own proposal on the Ethics Commission, which would basically undo the 2009 court decision. "Our first choice is what we proposed, which we think is cleaner," Marion says, "but if this [Sheehan bill] gets to the floor of the House or the Senate, we’d encourage its passage, because ultimately we think that restoring the jurisdiction, particularly over the vote of legislators is the most important thing."
The key obstacle to strengthening the Ethics Commission has been Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed's concern about the so-called "speech in debate" provision in the state Constitution. In its 2009 ruling, the state Supreme Court ruled that the clause protected former Senate president William V. Irons from prosecution in a conflict of interest case.
Sheehan's bill approaches the "speech in debate" issue by shielding lawmakers from things they say on the floor. Yet legislators could still face ethics prosecutions for their votes.
Here's how a legislative news release explains the speech in debate provision:
As proposed in the Sheehan resolution, the language of that article of the constitution would specify that “for any speech in debate in either house, no member shall be questioned in any other place except by the Ethics Commission, provided that members of the General Assembly shall be free, without question to penalty, to express an opinion or engage in debate, verbally or in writing, relative to any matter within their core legislative duties.”
Sheehan has been working on his legislation since 2012. The ethics issue hasn't gained much traction on Smith Hill since 2010, when a move to strengthen the commission passed the House before dying in the Senate.