April 23. 2015 2:01AM
Editorial: For ethics oversight
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.