Outlook uncertain on push to restore RI Ethics Commission

PROVIDENCE, RI – The General Assembly and the state Ethics Commission have had a stormy relationship since Rhode Islanders voted to create the commission in 1986. Then, in 2009, a state Supreme Court decision killed the commission's ability to police the General Assembly. A push to restore ethics oversight of the legislature is now in the works. But clashing views about the way forward leave the outcome far from certain.

The walls of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission's library are lined with shelves holding big, black binders. Those binders are full of rulings on the conduct of elected officials at the Statehouse and across Rhode Island. Staff attorney Jason Gramitt takes in the scene as he looks around the room. "This is the commission's library," he says, "and we have over here all of the commission's advisory opinions going back to the creation of the commission and even before."

But the Ethics Commission hasn't issued any advisory opinions involving state legislators in the last three years. That's because the state Supreme Court ruled lawmakers are shielded from prosecution for their core functions - like speaking and voting. That ruling squelched accusations that former Senate president William Irons had a conflict of interest when he voted on legislation involving pharmacies while he had a separate business relationship with Blue Cross & Blue Shield and the CVS drug-store chain. The court based its decision on a clause in the Rhode Island Constitution known as "speech in debate."

Yet in a state known for political corruption, Gramitt says the decision rendered the commission powerless when it came to policing the General Assembly.

"It has stopped the commission in its tracks," Gramitt says, "so we don't issue advisory opinions, we don't investigate allegations, and we don't follow-up on complaints that involve legislators voting or introduction or legislation - whether or not there's a conflict of interest."

Attempts to strength the Ethics Commission have gone nowhere. But state Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed now backs a general effort to restore the Ethics Commission's oversight of lawmakers on conflict of interest issues.

"What I'm not prepared to do is eliminate the speech in debate clause, which the framers of the US Constitution as well as the Rhode Island Constitution included for a very important purpose - to protect the ability of legislators to represent all the citizens in the state," Paiva Weed says.

"There's a fundamental disagreement about what form a solution should take," says John Marion, head of the non-partisan good government group Common Cause of Rhode Island. Marion says it's just not possible to restore the Ethics Commission's jurisdiction while maintaining the speech in debate clause as it currently exists in the Constitution. Speech in debate is meant to protect lawmakers for the things they say during legislative sessions.

"We read the Irons decision that came down in June of 2009 as a call to amend the Rhode Island Constitution, because the thrust was there are two constitutional principles in opposition to each other," Marion says.

Common Cause and Governor Lincoln Chafee are backing a bill to restore the Ethics Commission's oversight of the General Assembly. They say it should be up to voters this November to decide whether to amend the state Constitution so the Ethics Commission can police the General Assembly.

Senator James Sheehan, a North Kingstown Democrat, is leading the push in the Senate.

"My sense of this issue is sooner or later, we're going to have to resolve this issue," Sheehan says.

But Sheehan says it's not clear when that will happen. A major sticking point is resolving Paiva Weed's concern about maintaining "speech in debate" protection for lawmakers while boosting conflict of interest oversight.

One solution gives the Ethics Commission expanded jurisdiction within the speech in debate clause

Sheehan remains hopeful for a compromise, and says the General Assembly could benefit from a stronger Ethics Commission.

"Typically things happen with the legislature, and issues do pop up in eye of the public and become quite popular - or unpopular - however you look at it," he says. "I think the sooner we work on this proactively the better, because it that doesn't occur, we may be looking at this reactively."

Considering the fractious relationship between the legislature and the Ethics Commission, skeptics might question the outlook for a compromise. Governor Chafee says bolstering public confidence in state government is important for improving Rhode Island's economy. But the state budget, municipal pensions, and struggling cities and towns will dominate legislative attention before the General Assembly adjourns in June.

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