House Dems nullify vote on ethics bill, arguing rules require it

• Update: Common Cause blasts House Dems over ethics nullification (March 14)


House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Edie Ajello didn’t know what she was doing Tuesday when she voted with her colleagues to pass a proposed constitutional amendment reinstating the power of the R.I. Ethics Commission to police state lawmakers’ actions.

That’s how lawyers for House Democratic leadership kicked off their explanation for why Ajello nullified the vote on Wednesday afternoon when her committee reconvened.

The lawyers say Tuesday night’s surprise vote – which was orchestrated by rebel Democratic Rep. Patrick O’Neill – wasn’t allowed under the House rules [pdf] but Ajello didn’t realize that, so she voted along with the rest of the committee to pass the bill. “They did it in error,” House spokesman Larry Berman told WPRI.com.

Richard Raspallo, legal counsel to House Majority Leader Nick Mattiello, also said the votes taken by the committee Tuesday night will never be posted on the General Assembly’s website because the House rules don’t require committee votes to be recorded there unless the underlying bills are getting a floor vote.

“They’re nullified, so they’ll never be online,” he said.

Raspallo specifically cited Rule 13(c), which states: “The Speaker shall formulate a plan for the publication of committee votes and work to implement the plan so committee votes appear online in a prominent and conspicuous location on the General Assembly website prior to the floor votes of the bill occurring.”

The essence of the lawyers’ explanation for why Tuesday’s vote wasn’t allowed is fairly simple: they say that once a committee votes to hold a bill for further study, the committee is barred from taking any further action on it – even later on during the same hearing – until after a notice is posted for a new hearing.

“Under the rules, once they hold it for further study it has to be re-posted,” Susan Pegden, House Speaker Gordon Fox’s legal counsel, told WPRI.com. She cited Rules 12(e) and 12(f).

Rule 12(f) says a committee member may make a motion to reconsider the committee’s vote on a bill – but it also says it doesn’t apply to bills held for further study, an action that’s defined under Rule 12(e)(v).

“Because the first sentence [of Rule 12(f)] specifically excludes bills held for further study, bills held for further study under the second sentence cannot be the subject of a motion to reconsider,” Raspallo said. “The only way a bill that has been held for further study then gets new consideration – reconsideration – is if it’s re-posted.”

Therefore, they say, the rules didn’t allow O’Neill to ask for another vote on the ethics bill after the earlier one during the hearing that ordered it held for further study. (Confused yet?)

“It never should have been recognized,” Pegden said. Nevertheless it was, and the committee voted in favor of reconsidering their earlier vote and then in favor of passing the bill.

One state lawmaker familiar with the rules was astonished by the argument put forward by Pegden and Raspallo.

“Once we adjourn the committee [for the day] I agree that they have to re-post the bill. I wholly agree with that,” the lawmaker, who asked not to be identified because of the matter’s sensitivity, told WPRI.com. “But you cannot say to me that you can’t reconsider the bill just because it got held [for further study] earlier in the hearing.”

“It happened in a committee just last week,” the lawmaker continued. “And it’s happened before. That doesn’t make any sense. You can reconsider any vote as long as it’s in the same hearing. … It’s happened on multiple occasions, including as recently as last week.”

As for Ajello’s nullification of the ethics bill vote on Wednesday, Pegden said the rules don’t say specifically whether such an action is allowed. “This has never happened before,” she said. However, Pegden said Ajello was allowed to nullify the ethics vote under Rule 11(b), which says in part: “The chair shall determine all questions of procedure before the committee in cases not provided for in these rules.”

“The committee chairs, they are the ultimate authority,” Pegden said.

Raspallo argued that supporters of the ethics bill who are disappointed that its passage out of committee has been nullified are suggesting that “the ends justify the means,” while House leaders are concerned about correct procedure. “The rules matter,” he said.

Pegden acknowledged that there is no way for the sponsor of a bill to get another vote on it once the bill has been held for further study, but suggested they can lobby the chair and members of the committee to convince them to call another hearing and a vote.

“These bills are heavy bills, they’re complicated bills,” Pegden said. “You don’t want to pass something out without thinking it through.”

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island and a longtime proponent of the ethics amendment, issued a statement Wednesday evening expressing grave reservations about what had transpired earlier in the day.

“If the rules of the House of Representatives were tortured to orchestrate this change, then democracy was demeaned, if not denied,” Marion said.

Meanwhile, Speaker Fox quickly sought retribution against O’Neill, the man behind the ethics brouhaha. O’Neill, who was House majority whip until he broke with Fox last fall, was removed from the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday after eight years. Fox reassigned O’Neill to the lower-profile House Committee on Small Business.

“Speaker Fox can remove me from the House Judiciary Committee, but he will never silence or intimidate me,” O’Neill said in a statement Wednesday night, describing the move as a “petty and petulant maneuver” and an “act of political retribution.”

O’Neill also expressed disappointment that his initially successful effort to move the ethics bill out of committee had been reversed. “That effort was overwhelmingly supported by the members of the committee and I look forward to the day that it is debated openly on the floor,” he said.

• Related: Don’t look now, but House Judiciary just passed the ethics bill (March 12)

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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