Don’t look now, but House Judiciary just passed the ethics bill

Rep. J. Patrick O’Neill got a taste of revenge on Tuesday night.

During what was looking to be an uneventful hearing, the Pawtucket Democrat apparently surprised House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Edie Ajello and managed to get the 13-member panel to pass a proposed constitutional amendment [pdf] that would restore the R.I. Ethics Commission’s power to police state lawmakers. Rep. Doreen Costa, R-North Kingstown, seconded O’Neill’s motion.

A spokesman for House Speaker Gordon Fox wasn’t immediately available for comment, and the vote hasn’t been posted online yet. John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island and a longtime proponent of the ethics amendment, was shocked and elated by the sudden turn of events.

“They were intending to hold this bill for further study before Rep. O’Neill made a motion to reconsider,” Marion told WPRI.com. “We were caught off-guard, but we’re delighted because now the whole House of Representatives is going to have to vote on the resolution.”

The bill’s sponsor – Rep. Mike Marcello, D-Scituate – was as surprised as anyone; he was actually out of the room when the committee voted.

“I’m happy the bill passed, but I’m somewhat concerned about the manner in which it did,” Marcello told WPRI.com. “But a pass is a pass. I just hope the manner in which it passed doesn’t leave a cloud of suspicion as to whether or not it has the true support of the House.”

The vote puts Fox in a sticky situation.

Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed has long opposed the amendment, arguing lawmakers’ actions are protected by the state constitution’s speech-in-debate clause. It’s unlikely she wants Fox to drop it in her chamber’s lap – particularly during the same session when the House has already put her on the spot about whether the Senate will tackle same-sex marriage, and especially with voters set to decide next year whether to call a constitutional convention.

Yet Fox sponsored an identical ethics amendment that passed the House overwhelmingly in 2010, and he will face charges of hypocrisy if he now fails to call a vote on the bill by the full House of Representatives – as will other members of his caucus if they acquiesce.

“There’s some discretion as to the time frame for going to the floor, but it would be difficult for them not to address it,” Marion said. “They can recommit it to the committee and say it’s not ready for a floor vote yet, but I would find that difficult to do given that the House has already voted on this three years ago.”

Furthermore, Marion said the Senate version of the ethics amendment has 19 sponsors – enough to pass the bill if all the legislators voted in favor of it on the floor of the upper chamber, further raising the pressure on Paiva Weed and her leadership team.

All that must be sweet for O’Neill. The former House majority whip resigned from Fox’s leadership team last year because of differences with the speaker over style and policy, and he’s been on the outs ever since.

• Related: Ethics Commission’s future looks grimmer than ever (Nov. 29, 2010)

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