Good Government Group, ACLU Differ Over Ethics Commission Ballot Measure

Oct 3, 2016

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island is opposing a move to increase ethics oversight at the state legislature. A ballot measure would restore some powers to the state Ethics Commission.

The Ethics Commission is a body tasked with investigating complaints of corruption, abuse of power, or potential conflicts of interest in state and municipal government.

But the commission lost the power to investigate lawmakers over legislative actions, such as sponsoring or voting on a bill, after a 2009 court ruling. The November ballot will ask voters to change in the state constitution to restore that power. The ACLU says that could cause lawmakers to decline to participate fully or accurately in the legislative process for fear of retribution.

John Marion of the good government nonprofit Common Cause Rhode Island supports the measure. He said lawmakers will still be protected.

“Legislators are immune from civil and criminal prosecution, so the Attorney General can’t file criminal prosecution, a constituent can’t file a civil suit based on the vote of a legislator,” said Marion.

The ethics commission would be able to investigate potential wrongdoing and exact a fine.

“The important thing to know is that we’re not eliminating the immunity, we’re just providing an exception to the immunity for the ethics commission,” said Marion.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this article misstated that the Ethics Commission consisted of lawmakers. It is, in fact, comprised of citizens appointed by the Governor, some of which are recommended by state lawmakers.