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Put the Ethics Commission back in the State House

February 25, 2011

Once again, the headlines are full of wrongdoing by Rhode Island politicians. WRNI political analyst Scott MacKay says there is no better time than the present for the General Assembly to show it is serious about the changing perception of official chicanery.

Staring out from the front page of  The Providence Journal last Thursday was yet another blemish on our state’s political culture: The photo of three former North Providence councilmen who have agreed to plead guilty to extortion and bribery charges that will land them in federal prison.

John Zambarano, Joseph Burchfield and Raymond Douglas III will plead in federal court to charges that they took thousands of dollars in bribes in return for zoning changes to accommodate businesses.

What can one say about the North Providence taxpayers getting fleeced for $10,000 by these three crooked pols for a Florida junket. They went to a sunny resort where the government says they shared drinks and talked about a shakedown scheme that would get them $25,000 in bribes for supporting a zoning deal that greased the skids for construction of a supermarket.

It was yet another ethical cloud over a state that can’t seem to get out if its own shadow. Some of this stuff would be hilarious if you saw it in the movies or on a segment of the Sopranos. Can’t we do better than shrugged shoulders and knowing laughter about politicians who were so greedy that they tried to put the squeeze on the owner of a wiener joint, who refused to pay to play? (New York Times columnist Dan Barry did a great column on this episode).

The sad part of all this is that it never ends. Year after year, decade after decade, the parade of jammed-up politicians to jail has made our state a national laughingstock. In 1904, journalist Lincoln Steffens famously called Rhode Island a state for sale and cheap.

Those of us who pay the taxes and watch as businesses steer clear of our borders are getting very tired of all this.

With Rhode Island still ensnared in recession, isn’t it about time for state lawmakers to take this baby step in the right direction: put the General Assembly back under the jurisdiction of the state Ethics Commission.

When voters approved the Ethics Commission more than 20 years ago, they clearly supported a commission that would be empowered to go after lawmakers for violations of the state ethics code.

But the state Supreme Court in 2009 threw out a crucial provision that gave the commission the right to prosecute lawmakers. In a case involving then state Senate President William Irons, the court ruled that the ethics law did not apply to lawmakers performing their official acts. The ruling was based on the `speech-in-debate’ clause that for eons has shielded lawmakers from prosecution for their public speeches.

Clearly, the public did not intend to protect lawmakers from conflicts of interest. The Irons case focused on charges that he used his position to advance the interests of the pharmacy chain CVS while collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance commissions for selling employee health insurance to CVS.

Last year, the House approved legislation that would ask voters in a 2012 referendum to put the assembly back under the Ethics Commission umbrella. The Senate let the bill die.

Now, Rep. Michael Marcello, a Cranston Democrat, is back with a proposal to reinstate Ethics Commission supervision of lawmakers.

Why must we so often be ashamed of our state’s political ethics? Lawmakers now owe the voters a chance to put some spine in our ethics laws.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard on Morning edition every Monday at 6:35 and 8:35. You can follow his political reporting at the `On Politics’ blog at WRNI.org.

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