RI lawmakers to review gap in ethics oversight

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Rhode Island lawmakers are again considering a state Constitutional change to restore the Ethics Commission’s power to investigate and prosecute lawmakers for their votes and legislative work.

The proposed amendment seeks to close a two-year-old loophole that some government watchdog groups say gives a pass to members of the General Assembly who support or oppose legislation to advance their own interests.

Committee hearings are scheduled for Tuesday in the Senate and Wednesday in the House.

If passed, the amendment would go before the voters next year for approval.

In 2009 the state Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers were immune to ethics complaints regarding how they propose, debate and vote on legislation. The ruling relied on a constitutional provision that states lawmakers can’t be questioned for what they say in the General Assembly.

The amendment would add “except by the ethics commission.”

The so-called “speech in debate” provision in the state Constitution was written to protect lawmakers from possible retaliation for what they say and how they vote in the Assembly, not to hinder corruption investigations, said the amendment’s main sponsor in the Senate.

“We shouldn’t have a get-out-of-jail card,” said Sen. Edward O’Neill, a Lincoln independent. “Unfortunately, we have a history of corruption in Rhode Island. We should be put under the magnifying glass.”

The Ethics Commission was created to oversee ethics rules for officials in state and local government. The appointed members of the commission can investigate and prosecute officials and impose fines on officials found in violation of ethical rules.

Despite the 2009 ruling the commission still has the power to investigate and discipline lawmakers for violating rules on financial disclosures or nepotism. But the ruling hobbled its ability to investigate alleged conflicts of interest by lawmakers who may be proposing or opposing legislation to benefit themselves, their families or business clients.

Good government groups support the amendment.

“We’re not looking to expand the powers (of the Commission),” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island. “It’s simply closing a loophole and taking us back to what was the status quo.”

But some worry the amendment would go too far and give broad powers to an unelected body.

Rep. Brian Newberry, R- North Smithfield, said the amendment’s current wording could frighten lawmakers from talking about their professional backgrounds. He recalled a complaint once filed against a lawmaker whose background was in the pharmaceutical industry. Lawmakers discussing a pharmaceutical bill asked him to answer basic questions about the industry, Newberry said. The lawmaker recused himself from the vote, but the complaint alleged that he had a conflict-of-interest. The complaint was dismissed, Newberry said, but the damage was done.

“It still gave him a black eye,” Newberry said. “I don’t want to see someone’s First Amendment rights violated by something like this. You don’t want to have people afraid to talk about things.”

Newberry said the amendment should be altered to balance lawmakers’ right to speak freely with the need to investigate true conflicts-of-interest.

The 2009 ruling dismissed an ethics complaint against former Senate President William Irons. He was accused of having a conflict-of-interest when he voted against legislation opposed by a business client.

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