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Effort to strengthen Ethics Commission remains uncertain

March 1, 2012

Efforts to restore the Rhode Island Ethics Commission’s ability to police legislative behavior remain uncertain — despite conditional support from Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. I reported on the outlook in a story aired this morning on RIPR.

The nub of the matter is how Paiva Weed wants lawmakers to remain protected by “speech in debate” protection enshrined in the state Constitution. The state Supreme Court deferred to speech in debate when it ruled in 2009 that former Senate president William Irons was immune from Ethics Commission prosecution in a conflict of interest case.

Paiva Weed says she supports restoring the commission’s ability to offer conflict of interest oversight of the General Assembly. But John Marion of Common Cause of RI says there’s a fundamental contradiction in trying to bolster the Ethics Commission while maintaining the primacy of “speech in debate.”

It’s worth remembering voters backed the creation of rhe Rhode Island Ethics Commission in 1986. It’s suffered from various depredations since then.

In 2010, the House overwhelmingly supported an effort to strengthen the commission. But the measure died since it didn’t get a vote in the Senate.

Common Cause and Governor Chafee supporting legislation giving voters the choice this November of whether the commission should be able to police the General Assembly.

But a Senate-backed bill has yet to emerge. With the budget,  local pensions, and struggling cities and towns vying for attention, it remains to be seen if the Ethics Commission will get a boost this year.

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