Ethics panel must have authority over legislators

Ethics panel must have authority over legislators

General Assembly immunity from ethics laws: debate.

On April 13th, the following Op-ed by John Marion and Amy Goins appeared in the Newport Daily News.

Ethics panel must have authority over legislators

by John Marion and Amy Goins

Should members of the General Assembly, our most important elective body, be immune from the ethics laws that govern all other elected and appointed officials? According to the March 2nd Guest View column by Steven Brown of the American Civil Liberties Union, the answer is yes. Common Cause couldn’t disagree more. Not only do we believe that Mr. Brown is incorrect in asserting that the Ethics Commission is anathema to a democratic system of government, we assert that strong ethics enforcement is important to an economically vibrant state.

But first, some background is in order. In June of 2009 the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that the “speech in debate” clause of the state Constitution provides immunity from prosecution for members of the General Assembly. The Court reasoned that this immunity trumps the ethics amendment that was passed in 1986 and created a commission with jurisdiction over “all elected and appointed officials.”

In response to that ruling, Common Cause has proposed a constitutional amendment be put on the ballot to allow for a limited repeal of the “speech in debate” clause to restore the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission. A resolution to put such a repeal on the ballot passed the Rhode Island House of Representatives on a vote of 68-5 last year before dying in the Senate. This year those resolutions are sponsored by Representative Michael Marcello (D-Scituate) in the House (H 5410) and Senator Edward O’Neill (I-Lincoln) in the Senate (S 634).

The crux of the ACLU’s argument against our amendment is that the Ethics Commission as an “unelected body” should not have their jurisdiction restored because they have the power to “adopt a legally enforceable code of ethics.” This should not be a matter of concern. There are many examples where the state cedes authority to appointed officials. The entire judicial branch, thankfully, is chosen exclusively by appointment. Appointed boards and commissions that perform quasi-legislative and quasi-judicial functions exercise much of the authority of the executive branch.

In fact, the “unelected” nature of the body is exactly what makes the Commission effective. The alternative used in many other states, and in the United States Senate, is an internal ethics body; the “self-policing” model. Those models fail because of a lack of independence. It is against human nature to punish oneself.

Mr. Brown bolsters his argument by citing a letter that Governor Carcieri sent requesting that the Commission dramatically broaden the definition of a conflict of interest. What Mr. Brown fails to mention is that anyone can write a letter to the Commission asking them to make changes to the Code of Ethics. Again, a perceived weakness is actually a strength. Any citizen of Rhode Island can file a complaint, or propose a regulatory change.

This is not just an academic debate over the meaning of representative democracy. Every citizen of Rhode Island should be concerned about the lack of jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission because conflict of interest and political corruption are real threats to our economic well-being. Recent history shows that the legislature needs a vigorous ethics watchdog. In the last decade now Speaker Gordon Fox, former Senate President Joseph Montalbano, and former Senate Corporations Committee Chair John Celona, were all fined by the Ethics Commission. A robust watchdog of legislative ethics is clearly needed.

Restoring the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over state legislators will also help to counteract Rhode Island’s image as a haven for corruption and lead to a stronger economy. Political corruption results in significant economic costs to states. In states where corruption is rampant, businesses face pressure to bribe public officials, and an uncertain business climate prevails. . Because of the higher cost of doing business, firms are discouraged from operating in corrupt states. Corruption is directly correlated to negative job growth. Restoring the Ethics Commission’s oversight of state legislators is not only good public policy, but also good for our economy.

While a dizzying number of initiative are being considered at the State House, we hope those doing the peoples’ business don’t forget this important issue. Until the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission is restored the General Assembly operates without a needed mechanism for accountability.