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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Call To Action: Strengthen RI's Ethics Commission
Did you read the editorial in the April 23 edition of the Providence Journal (see our posting below)?  I hope you did. The ProJo editors concluded that “Citizens should urge their representatives to support reform. Ethics Commission oversight of lawmakers should be put to the voters of Rhode Island.” This editorial was just one of many requests calling for the public to take action on the important issue of ethics in politics in Rhode Island.

The League of Women Voters agrees that the Ethics Commission must once again have oversight and jurisdiction over the General Assembly.  At this time our legislators are policing themselves. Since 2009 when the state courts weakened the Commission, the League of Women Voters of RI has testified on the necessity of passing legislation that would allow Rhode Island voters to decide this Issue.  

Representative Marcello’s House Resolution No. 5374 and Senator O’Neill’s Senate Resolution No. 56 are being considered at this moment on Smith Hill.  The League’s Advocacy team has given written and oral testimony in support of both bills.   If the legislation passes, voters will decide whether or not to amend the RI Constitution, restoring the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over the General Assembly.

There are other bills that have been introduced, but the League feels these bills are the strongest.  Why? Senate No. 56 and House No. 5374 include jurisdiction during  “speech in debate” when representatives are on the floor debating or advocating for a bill.  If there appears to be a conflict of interest the Ethics Commission would be able to examine and investigate and rule on the legislator’s action. Other bills being considered would greatly reduce the power of the Ethics Commission.  These bills would allow legislators to seek a jury trial in court completely ignoring the Commission’s findings and decision.   The bills we oppose would also allow thousands of public officials to go beyond administrative oversight and seek a decision in the courts, thereby causing possible lengthy trials and great costs to the public.  Separation of powers is also weakened when one branch of government (the court) oversees another (the legislature), which could be problematic in Rhode Island where many lawmakers move from the legislature into positions in the courts as judges and magistrates.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello was quoted in a Providence Journal article in early March saying that to gain the public’s trust he will “make sure that the House serves the interests of the public.  Each and every day that I am here, we will serve the public’s interest and we will earn the public’s trust.”  He was also quoted in Thursday’s editorial as saying that  “We pass bills that are in the citizen’s best interest.”    The public needs assurance that this happens.  Let’s “make sure,” as Speaker Mattiello says, that the legislature will indeed serve the public interest with proper oversight.

What can you do to have this happen?  Contact your representatives and senators and ask them to support these two bills.  If they do not support these two bills, ask why.  These are the two bills that will actually restore the full jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over our legislators and hold them responsible to the public.

And please forward this message to your friends and family members in RI and go to the LWVRI  Facebook page and share the League’s posting about this action.

Be in League!  Take Action Now.

Jane Koster
President, LWVRI

The April 23 editorial in the Providence Journal outlines the case for giving RI voters the right to strengthen the state's Ethics Commission.

April 23. 2015 2:01AM

Editorial: For ethics oversight

Like America’s founders, those who framed Rhode Island’s Constitution recognized that there can be a danger of prosecution of politicians for purely political reasons. When the weight of government power is brought to bear against lawmakers because of their political views, free speech comes under attack, and it becomes impossible to sustain a system of self-government. And so the Constitution offers lawmakers some protection through a "speech-in-debate" clause.
But the important principle of sustaining free speech and representative government should not offer blanket protection to lawmakers to engage in abuse of public power to advance their personal or financial interests.
In short, a reasonable balance must be struck. Clearly, the balance in Rhode Island has been shifted away from enforcement of ethical standards toward freedom to potentially misuse public power. Leaders in the General Assembly should rectify that, rather than insist they are above such restraints.
Citizens in general, and good-government groups such as Common Cause Rhode Island and Operation Clean Government in particular, are trying again this year to restore Ethics Commission jurisdiction over actions by the state’s lawmakers. In a 2009 ruling involving dubious activities by former Senate President William Irons, the state Supreme Court found that the state Constitution protected lawmakers from Ethics Commission oversight. It based its ruling on the "speech-in-debate" clause, which protects lawmakers from prosecution based on acts that include proposing and voting on legislation.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court suggested the voters could always, in effect, overturn its decision. "If the citizens of Rhode Island wish to empower the Ethics Commission to investigate and prosecute legislators with respect to their legislative actions, notwithstanding the operation of the speech in debate clause, they most certainly have the power to do so," the majority wrote.
Bills by Rep. Michael Marcello, D-Scituate, and Sen. Edward O'Neill, I-Lincoln, would do just that: put a constitutional amendment before voters, asking if they want the commission to have jurisdiction over state lawmakers. We have no doubt it would pass overwhelmingly.
Ethical restraints are important for many reasons. They give pause to lawmakers who might otherwise misuse public power. John Marion of Common Cause notes that recusals by House members dropped from more than 100 in 2007 to roughly 30 in 2013 -- evidence, as he put it, that “we've taken the cop off the beat.”
Strong ethics rules also send a signal to the world outside that Rhode Island has moved beyond its celebrated past of political corruption, something crucial to attracting entrepreneurs and boosting its economy. Such a signal would be welcome in the wake of the guilty plea of former House Speaker Gordon Fox to bribery, wire fraud and other crimes.
Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Fox’s successor, argues that the Fox case has no bearing on the issue of Ethics Commission oversight since the former speaker faced criminal prosecution. “An ethics fine would have added no value to that situation whatsoever," Mr. Mattiello said. He also argued that financial interests do not sway members. "We pass bills that are in the citizens' best interest," he said.
We understand his desire to defend the integrity of fellow House members and shield those who do not want to fall under ethics restrictions, but we have less trust in the honor system. Ethics Commission oversight would advance the public’s interest and improve Rhode Island’s economic prospects, something the speaker has made clear is important to him.
Citizens should urge their representatives to support reform. Ethics Commission oversight of lawmakers should be put to the voters of Rhode Island.