House & Senate Leaders Back Proposal To Strengthen RI Ethics Commission

May 10, 2016

Former Common Cause head Phil West (right) listens, as (from left) House Majority Leader John Desimone, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio unveil their support for an ethics measure.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

One week after the resignation of a key lawmaker, House and Senate leaders on Tuesday put their combined support behind a proposal to strengthen the state Ethics Commission and its oversight of the legislature.

"I want to be very clear," House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said, as reporters and camera crews crowded into his third-floor Statehouse office. "I want the business community and the public to understand that we are concerned with the level of trust in government. We want them to have faith, trust and confidence in government, so that we can concentrate on the important things, and that's creating jobs and moving the economy forward."

Mattiello said the ethics proposal would restore the Ethics Commission's ability to police lawmakers for core legislative functions, like voting and speaking on the chamber floor, and in committee, to what it was like prior to a 2009 state Supreme Court decision involving former state Senate president William Irons. That decision crippled the Ethics Commission in the eye of watchdogs, and attempts to address the situation since then have generally been sporadic or half-hearted.

The legislative leaders' ethics proposal would also include a moratorium on the filing of ethics complaints from the time when a candidate officially files their candidacy to the time of their election. Mattiello called this an effort to discourage frivolous complaints, noting that rival candidates or others could still contact reporters with tips and speak out on their own.

RIPR reported in April that Mattiello's staff was drafting a bill related to the Ethics Commission. Still, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio's presence at the news conference was surprising. By expressing concern about protecting the "speech in debate" right of lawmakers, Paiva Weed had been one of the most outspoken skeptics in recent years about restoring the Ethics Commission's oversight.

Paiva Weed maintained she was never an opponent of returning the commission's ability to police lawmakers for actions beyond those related to campaign finance.

"The issue was and the debate was, how do you protect the constitutional workings of the General Assembly in a way that it is not abused, and preserve General Assembly's members ability to freely debate on the floor of the House or the Senate chamber any and all issues, and ensure that the confidence of the public, the business community, the average citizen is restored in the General Assembly," she said.

Mattiello said, "You either waive speech in debate or you do not. We looked for a middle ground, we thought about it, we debated it, there is no middle ground. It's either there or not, and the public, I believe, wants it to be removed, and we're going to remove it -- if the public votes to do so."

Two leading ethics watchdogs praised the move to restore conflict of interest oversight for lawmakers.

H. Philip West Jr., who led the good government group Common Cause of Rhode Island for more than 20 years, stood with lawmakers for their news conference. He called their proposal "A huge step forward," although he noted that he first saw the final details just hours beforehand. Separately, Common Cause's current head, John Marion said he gives the proposal his qualified support.

"This one restores the full jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over the General Assembly, and that's been our goal all along," Marion said. But he said Common Cause has some questions about the proposed moratorium on election-season complaints to the Commission, "which is not necessarily a bad public policy, but may not belong in the state Constitution."

If the ethics bill is approved by the General Assembly, voters will have their chance to consider it in November.

Both Mattiello and Paiva Weed praised their members as good people. Yet it was clear that what Mattiello called "recent events" -- the sudden resignation May 3 of House Finance Chairman Ray Gallison of Bristol, who remains part of an federal probe -- added momentum to the move to bolster ethics oversight. The reason for the investigation has not been specified, although it has cast scrutiny on two separate programs in which lawmakers give out millions of dollars in grants.

After taking power in 2014, Mattiello said the Ethics Commission was not a priority for him. He said the primary focus at that time needed to be jobs and the economy. Now, he said, "I think it's very appropriate that in light of recent events we're doing this today, and we're communicating to the public that there will be conflicts of interest oversight, relative to voting on the House floor."

Paiva Weed and Matiello said they also plan to take action in this legislative session on a lobbying overhaul being pursued by Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea.

This post has been updated.