The Rhode Island GOP filed a complaint Monday charging that state Sen. Valarie Lawson (D-East Providence) -- who serves as the paid vice president of the National Education Association Rhode Island Teachers’ union -- took part in a conflict of interest by twice voting for a continuing contracts bill.
Lawson and the NEA rejected the argument made by the state Republican Party to the Ethics Commission.
“I sought and received guidance from staff at the Ethics Commission,” Lawson said, in a statement distributed by the state Senate. “Additionally, the Senate’s attorney followed up with Ethics Commission to confirm my understanding of the discharge of my legislative responsibilities as it relates to this legislation. I followed the guidance that was provided.”
GOP counsel Brandon Bell, the former chairman of the party, charged that the contracts bill will benefit teachers’ unions “by increasing their negotiating leverage with employers on financial issues.”
Bell also rejected the idea that a class exception shields Lawson from a conflict charge, with the theory of that defense being that she would not benefit from the contracts bill any more than other members of her union.
“When you look at the class exception law, it deals with the rank and file – teachers, police officers, firefighters,” he said. “This is quite different. She’s an officer of a statewide teacher union for which she receives compensation.”
Lawson, a freshman who works as a teacher, voted for the contracts bill twice – in the Senate Labor Committee and as part of the whole Senate.
Legislative Labor committees are slated to take a final vote on the legislation Tuesday, and it could move to the floor of the House and Senate on Thursday. Gov. Gina Raimondo has signaled she is likely to let the measure become law.
City and town leaders have urged lawmakers and the governor to reject the bill, saying it would increase costs for municipalities and taxpayers. Supporters say the contracts bill would rarely come into play and have minimal impact.
Bell called on the Ethics Commission to send a signal in the case.
“The Ethics Commission should exercise this authority over Senator Lawson,” he said. If it does not, then it will send a message that in Rhode Island, a legislator can sponsor, advocate and vote for legislation lobbied by a business associate of the legislator that will benefit a business that is paying the legislator.”
NEARI executive director Robert Walsh used a statement to fire back at Bell.
“It is sad that the beleaguered RI GOP would use the occasion of Teacher Appreciation Week to attack a hardworking classroom teacher,” Walsh said. “Like many Rhode Islanders, Val Lawson is active in her profession, her community, her union, and, in her case, she also serves as a newly-elected state senator.
“Val Lawson is a stickler for the rules,” Walsh continued. “She attended the briefing for state senators conducted by the RI Ethics Commission and followed up with their executive director, Jason Gramitt, with questions on this topic. In fact, this matter was so clear-cut that neither the Ethics Commission staff nor Senate legal staff felt that she needed an opinion in writing.
“As to the specifics of this complaint, Sen. Lawson followed the two relevant rules to the letter. The class exception covers Sen. Lawson debating and voting on this bill, which equally impacts all public sector employees. While not relevant, it should be noted that a statewide NEARI vice president has no role in bargaining for NEARI’s 75 local associations. Should the GOP efforts to change the existing rules prevail, one can question if anyone can serve in our part-time General Assembly.
“The GOP acknowledges that Sen. Lawson is in compliance with the second relevant policy. When a NEARI employee was slated to testify before the Senate Labor Committee, she completed and submitted the appropriate recusal paperwork, and removed herself from the table as she was advised to do, because the NEARI lobbyist could be considered a business associate. For a similar reason, she requested not to serve on the Senate Education Committee where NEARI lobbyists more regularly appear.”