Voters to consider restoring Ethics Commission authority over lawmakers

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s Ethics Commission serves as a code-of-conduct watchdog over public officials and employees — including the governor and mayors — everyone except our state senators and representatives when they’re working on legislation. Ballot Question 2 on Rhode Island ballots proposes re-establishing the ethics commission’s full authority over the General Assembly.

“We’re not creating something new,” John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island said Tuesday. “We’re simply going back to where we were for about a 20 year period.”

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The General Assembly has been largely immune from the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction since 2009, but before that, legislators were held to the same code of conduct as every other elected official.

“Right now, to the best of our knowledge, we’re the only state in the nation where there is nothing in place to serve as the watchdog to the ethics of the legislature,” Marion said.

The purpose of the Ethics Commission is to not only offer advice, but to make sure politicians and state employees don’t use their office for personal financial gains.

“The legislature is immune from the state ethics laws,” said Marion, “so they can engage in conflicts of interest, and there is nothing that can be done about it.

“This would restore that power which we think is really important to fighting corruption and restoring trust.”

Criticism of Question 2 includes that it may violate the free speech rights of legislators.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island posted a statement on its website, saying it had to “reluctantly oppose” Question 2.

By approving the amendment, the ACLU said the General Assembly is rejecting alternative language that would have continued protection for legislators engaging in public discussion at the State House. This amendment, the group claimed, gives the Commission “virtually limitless authority to decide what constitutes a ‘conflict of interest’ or ethical misconduct.”

“Because this amendment, though clearly well-intentioned, has the potential to cause great mischief and chill legislative speech and legislator-constituent relations, the ACLU opposes Question 2,” the statement concluded.

In a Fleming and Associates poll of 400 random Rhode Island voters, commissioned in September by the Rhode Island Coalition for Ethics Reform, 78 percent of the respondents said they would vote to approve Question 2.

Back in June, House and Senate members unanimously agreed to put the proposal on the ballot.

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