Ethics reform bill sails through RI General Assembly

Jim Hughes | WPRI-TV

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With several General Assembly members mired in controversy, both the Rhode Island House and Senate unanimously approved legislation Thursday that would put ethics reform on the state’s November ballot.

The joint resolution, sponsored by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, would put a constitutional amendment before the voters that would allow the state’s Ethics Commission to investigate and sanction lawmakers for conflicts of interest.

The two chambers passed each other’s bills Thursday night, the final step to put the amendment on November’s ballot. (Since the measure is a joint resolution, the governor’s signature is not required.)

Timeline: Recent political scandals in Rhode Island »
Timeline: Recent political scandals in Rhode Island »

“Today’s action will increase transparency and accountability, and will help ensure the confidence of the citizens in their government,” Paiva Weed, D-Newport, said.

“There is no room at the General Assembly for those who put self-interest before our state’s best interest,” Mattiello, D-Cranston, said. “This reform, if approved by the voters, will bring a strong sense of accountability to our chambers.”

If approved, the amendment would reverse a controversial 2009 Rhode Island Supreme Court decision that ruled Article VI, Section 5 of the state constitution gives lawmakers immunity from Ethics Commission prosecution in cases involving their “core legislative functions.” Advocates have spent the past seven years lobbying those same lawmakers to pass a bill that would reverse the court decision.

It was former Senate President William Irons who appealed a commission decision against him and thus triggered the 2009 ruling that neutered the body’s authority.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, applauded the measure passed Thursday.

“This is important because right now any member of the Assembly could have a conflict of interest and there’s nothing that can be done about it,” said Marion, who’s been fighting for the ethics fix since the Irons ruling.

“Seven years – quite a relief to get this on the ballot,” he said. “Can’t wait to vote for it myself.”

The General Assembly took up the ethics issue at a time where several of its members are garnering negative headlines.

Speaker Mattiello introduced his bill in May, a week after House Finance Committee Chairman Ray Gallison resigned amid a law enforcement probe. However, the speaker insisted the bill was already in the works months before.

As Target 12 has previously reported, about one in four lawmakers have been forced to amend their Ethics Commission financial disclosures since Gallison resigned. Among them were state Sen. Jamie Doyle, who acknowledged undisclosed personal debts after they were discovered by Target 12, and Rep. Anastasia Williams, who twice in recent years failed to list her day job on her form.

Just this week, Rep. John Carnevale amended nine years of ethics filings in the wake of an undercover Target 12 probe that raised questions about whether he lives in his House district and why he was failing to disclose a property he owned in Johnston.

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.

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