ARLENE VIOLET - Add ethics oversight; Approve Question 2

ARLENE VIOLET - Add ethics oversight; Approve Question 2

Rhode Island citizens have something which they rarely get, namely, a second chance. Back in 1986 the state’s Constitutional Convention created an Ethics Committee which would be nonpartisan in nature and would consider a code of ethics to oversee effective measures for governmental reform. The state’s electorate approved the Convention’s recommendation and the demand for ethical conduct and oversight by an Ethics Commission was codified in Article 3 of the Rhode Island Constitution. Voters thought that they had established a mechanism of oversight in order to stanch the corruption emanating particularly from the General Assembly. Several legislators like House Majority Leader Gerard Martineau of Woonsocket, and Sen. John Celona of North Providence had turned their opportunities to vote into an income stream. They were jailed.

Then Senate President William Irons, however, decided to mount a legal challenge. His votes apparently benefited CVS by torpedoing pharmacy choice so CVS could become a dominant player while he wrote insurance for the company through his personal agency. His attorneys raised the issue of the “Speech and Debate Clause” which would immunize him from any ethics complaint action. Then Attorney General Patrick Lynch sided with Irons. The Supreme Court in a 3-1 decision (Justice Goldberg recusing) stated that the senator was immune regardless of any self-dealing by the speech and debate clause.

Chief Judge Paul Suttell dissented from the majority decision and stated that the newly minted amendment to the Constitution – which was overwhelmingly approved by the voters and born in a time of great corruption – trumped the speech and debate clause and was a narrow exception to immunity when an action was one in furtherance of corruption.

So, for the past 30 years legislative immunity perdured. Now, with renewed bouts of corruption at the legislature and with good government groups pushing for ethics oversite of the legislature Question 2 is on the ballot. Question 2 clearly states that the legislature is subject to ethics demanded of other public officials. It should be passed overwhelmingly by the voters. That means you.

Legislators given the most recent checkered past of misbehavior by the Gallisons, Carnevales et al won’t publicly speak out against Question 2. You can be sure, however, that their minions will mount all sorts of attacks. Just like everything else in the state the assault will be couched in all great sounding rhetoric like not impeding the independence of the legislature. Actually, Question 2 only impedes legislators from marrying special interests and voting in a way that makes them the recipient of that cash cow for their private business interests. In other words legislators need only fear voting in a way that makes them a recipient of a contract with the company for whose interest they voted.

Another attack tactic will be to say that Question 2 is ineffective since the legislators can get around it by accepting business after a year or two from the beneficiary of the legislation. While that says a lot about the character of such a public servant who does so, the fact is that ethics regulation already allows a waiting period in other public official’s employment so the same principle applies to all.

Voting “approve” for Question 2 is a no-brainer.

Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.