This letter to the editor from Sen. James Sheehan (D-36) was distributed for publication by the state house press office.
Last Sunday, the University of Rhode Island hosted a competition which pitted student teams against each other in defending their moral take on complex social, political and business issues. This inaugural event was called the Rhode Island High School Ethics Bowl. Coincidentally, the annual “State House Ethics Bowl,” restoring the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction over the General Assembly, kicks off again this session at the state capitol.
The Ethics Commission was created to be the citizens’ watchdog over public officials and their actions, with specific authority over the General Assembly. As a result of a 2009 ruling, in a case involving former Senate President William V. Irons, the Ethics Commission’s oversight over the General Assembly was struck a severe blow. The ruling effectively exempted state lawmakers from scrutiny and prosecution by the state Ethics Commission for violations relating to their core legislative acts such as introducing and voting on legislation. Since then, a senator or representative can freely promote legislation wherein he or she has a clear conflict of interest without fear of being held accountable by the Ethics Commission. This “legislators’ loophole” must be closed.
The late Sen. J. Michael Lenihan took up the effort to restore the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission following the 2009 decision. I proudly took up the banner of ethics reform after Senator Lenihan retired in 2010. Further, at the behest of Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, I have worked to find a common ground compromise on ethics reform. Working with various stakeholders, including voices of good government watchdogs, the Senate, and the Ethics Commission, I believe we have forged a very reasonable ethics reform amendment. As with most compromises on contentious issues, no one was completely happy with the resulting text, but nearly everyone agreed that it represented a genuine opportunity to bring closure to this issue.
This common ground Ethics Amendment would re-establish the authority of the Ethics Commission over the core legislative acts of the General Assembly while preserving the venerated right of “free speech” for lawmakers on the floor or in committees of both houses. Further, the amendment would afford any person a trial by jury appeal for a violation of the Code of Ethics deemed criminal in nature at common law by the state's [high] court. Lastly, the proposed amendment would set the composition of the Ethics Commission into the constitution as well as balance the number of Ethics commissioners nominated by the House and Senate leaders.
Rhode Island citizens do not trust their government, especially the General Assembly. In a Fleming and Associates 2016 poll of what issues Rhode Island voters want the General Assembly to address this year, “Government corruption” was ranked second (behind creating jobs). Restoring the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over the General Assembly would represent a great step forward in rebuilding the people’s trust in government by deterring future instances of public corruption. The only question is whether Senate and House leaders will decide to act on Ethics Reform or will prefer to maintain a festering status quo.
Sen. James C. Sheehan
Senator Sheehan is a Democratic senator representing District 36, which includes Narragansett and North Kingstown. He is chairman of the Senate Government Oversight Committee. He resides in North Kingstown.