Senate delays vote on ethics bill

RI Statehouse

Amid dissension, the Rhode Island Senate delayed consideration Wednesday of legislation designed to restore Ethics Commission jurisdiction over state lawmakers.

Lawmakers have shown to be reluctant to change the rules of the Ethics Commission since a court decision five years ago said the commission may not use legislative activities in consideration of any potential violation.

In other words, the very work lawmakers do is off limits to the Ethics Commission.

Public pressure has helped bring the Senate to where it is now, considering a new ethics bill. But it's not pleasing watchdog group Common Cause, which doesn't want the bill passed as written.

"Because they made changes in committee last week that Common Cause and all the other good government groups in the state think are watering down the ethics process in Rhode Island," said John Marion of Common Cause.

Some lawmakers are agreeing, and state Sen. Dawson Hodgson, R-East Greenwich, is offering an amendment to the part of the bill that lets convicted legislators appeal the Ethics Commission decision to court.

"It has the potential to slow down the administration of the ethics rules of the state and really clog up the system, and it is far too broad even for the purpose that's being articulated by the sponsors," Hodgson said.

But the bill's sponsor disagrees and said the appeal process is only fair.

"It takes a violation that the Ethics Commission has found against someone and gives you a trial in Superior Court," state Sen. James Sheehan, D-Narragansett, said.

Some have seen this as an exercise for the legislature to look like they are willing to submit to the rules of the commission, without actually doing it.

Sheehan said he disagrees with critics who say the bill is creating more immunity for legislators.

"First off this restores all the code of ethics to every member of the General Assembly. That's enormous. That's a huge step in the right direction," Sheehan said.

It's not clear what changes will be made to the bill, but it is expected back on the Senate floor Thursday.