A stalemate over strengthening the state Ethics Commission has persisted since a 2009 court decision weakened the commission.
Sharp debate continued Tuesday night about how to restore the power of the state’s ethics watchdog.
There was plenty of agreement during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that something needs to be done. Lawmakers, good government groups and everyday citizens say that public confidence in politicians is at an all-time low. Here’s state Sen. Edward O’Neill (I-Lincoln): "Quite frankly, ladies and gentlemen, the public, the voting public, they don’t trust us. And the more astute ones tell us, why should we trust you? You won’t even pass ethics reform. You’ve been at it for several years."
Actually, the impasse on ethics reform has continued since 2009. That’s when the state Supreme Court struck down the Ethics Commission’s ability to police the core legislative functions of lawmakers, in a case involving former state Senate president William V. Irons. The court ruled Irons was immune from prosecution by the Ethics Commission in a conflict of interest case, due to the constitutional protection, known as "speech in debate" for lawmakers.
But there are two separate views on what should be done to bolster the commission’s watchdog ability. Both involve giving voters the opportunity to sign off on enhancing the Ethics Commission’s oversight of the Statehouse. First, lawmakers have to decide what voters would vote on.
Ethics Commission staff attorney Jason Gramitt told the Judiciary Committee that strengthening ethics is mainly a matter of lawmakers agreeing to an initial vote for a stronger commission: "All you have to do to turn this around is press a green button. It’s like the Matrix – just press a button."
Good government groups prefer a bill sponsored by Senator O’Neill. It would allow voters to restore the Ethics Commission’s power to what it was like before the 2009 state Supreme Court decision.
Yet the General Assembly has not embraced the Ethics Commission since voters created it in the aftermath of scandal in 1986.
During the Judiciary hearing, some lawmakers said they want to be held to high standards. But they say the Ethics Commission resembles a fourth branch of government since it can investigate and try cases and then impose punishment.
That’s why Judiciary Committee members like Senator Frank Lombardi (D-Cranston) prefer a bill, introduced by Senator James Sheehan (D-North Kingstown) calling for the right for a separate jury trial for those facing ethics sanctions. Lombardi said it's only fair for lawmakers to have a chance at review by a neutral party if they are found culpable for wrongdoing by the commission.
"The only issue is I would attach the right to have any violation or any finding of the Ethics Commission to be reviewed by a court simply because I believe that the stigma of an ethics violation is akin to a criminal violation," Lombardi said during an interview outside the hearing.
Gramitt said the Ethics Commission did not take a position on Sheehan's bill. "The reason the commission takes a position is because it believes that the people initially supported this type of ethics enforcement, and so Senator O'Neill's bill does nothing more and nothing less than restore the status quo ... prior to Irons based on exactly what the commission believes was the very clear intent of the public when it voted to amend the Constitution back in 1986."
Gramitt said the Ethics Commission appreciates the intent and hard work that went into Sheehan's bill, but he said the commission believes it must limit its role to advocating for what voters supported in 1986.
That led Judiciary Chairman Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick) to say, "You almost sound like the late Justice Scalia. This is an originalist argument, I guess."
The comment sparked laughter, as did Gramitt when he said it was the first time he had ever been compared to Justice Scalia.
John Marion, executive director of the good government group Common Cause of Rhode Island, raised a separate concern. He said Sheehan's bill could allow lawmakers to participate in debate on an issue on which they have a conflict.
A few dozen citizens turned out to watch Judiciary Committee’s hearing on ethics, including Terri Giviens of Warwick. She said lawmakers who get into an ethics jam don’t deserve a separate trial.
"We want an Ethics Commission to be their checks – just the Ethics Commission. They’ll do a good job. We don’t have to pay for them to have a lawyer to get out of a problem if they’re guilty about it to begin with. The Ethics Commission can do the job well enough."
The two competing ethics bills were held for further study. Senator Lombardi said he’s optimistic a compromise can be reached on the issue after seven years of impasse.
But Common Cause's Marion said he fears lawmakers will ultimately pass the bill offering lawmakers a separate jury trial if they face an ethics violation.
This post has been expanded.