RI restores oversight of lawmakers who might have conflicts
After a bill by state Sen. Stephen Archambault expanded driving opportunities for some people convicted of drunken driving, the lawmaker -- who also happens to be a lawyer specializing in those cases -- promoted it on his firm's website.
"Archambault literally wrote this law, and knows exactly what to do to succeed for you," it said.
It's questionable whether sponsoring a bill that could help drive clients to his law practice represents a possible conflict of interest in Rhode Island. But in a nationwide review , the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press, Archambault was found to be one of numerous politicians whose bills ended up potentially helping their businesses.
“I wrote them, it’s my stuff I said I wrote the law and I know what to do to succeed. I could see that that could be construed as a conflict, I could see that, so I immediately took it down,” Archambault told NBC 10 News, adding that he remains proud of the bill he wrote, which he said received an award from Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“People now will use interlock in cars to drive to and from work,” he said. “It enables people to keep their jobs. There’ll be more convictions. It’s a really good law, it got national attention.”
Rhode Island is like most states in that it does not have a full-time legislature, and most of its lawmakers have outside jobs. The Center for Public Integrity/AP review found that at least 76 percent of state lawmakers holding office in 2015 worked other jobs. While such outside employment gives lawmakers expertise in certain policy areas, many of those jobs are directly affected by the actions of the legislatures.
The review was based on an analysis of disclosure reports from 6,933 lawmakers in the 47 states that required them. It found many examples of state lawmakers who have introduced and supported legislation that directly and indirectly helped their own businesses, their employers or their personal finances. The practice is enabled by limited disclosure requirements for personal financial information and self-policing that often excuses seemingly blatant conflicts.
The law Archambault sponsored allows first offenders convicted of drunken driving to seek hardship licenses for traveling to and from work and to necessary appointments. They're required to have interlock ignition systems in their vehicles, which measures the alcohol in their systems.
The former candidate for attorney general said on his law office website that he is in a unique position to help people charged with DUIs: "I literally drafted and successfully passed the current DUI law regarding hardship licenses and interlocks."
The language about the bill was removed after his office was contacted by a reporter. He did not return requests for comment.
The site still mentions his work as a senator and promotes his elected position as a selling point for hiring him as a lawyer.
After Archambault sponsored the DUI bill, the state ethics law changed. At the time, the ethics commission didn't have the power to investigate lawmakers for potential conflicts of interest or to sanction them when they were found to have acted improperly. Compliance was voluntary. In November 2016, voters approved a constitutional amendment restoring the commission's oversight.
A commission attorney did not immediately comment on whether language on Archambault's website runs afoul of any ethics rules.
Another lawmaker, Rep. Lauren Carson, a Newport Democrat, said she is being more aggressive about checking with the ethics commission after the change in the law. Before that, she successfully co-sponsored a bill in 2015 to phase out the use of cesspools in the state, an issue her employer, Rhode Island Clean Water Action, had been advocating for years.
Carson said the nonprofit clearly would not gain financially from the bill. The commission told her last summer that the ethics code does not prohibit her from working on a project by Clean Water Action that is funded by a state grant.
Carson said she also took her name off some environmental bills in the last legislative session to avoid potential conflicts.
"I've been much more careful about evaluating the types of environmental policies I advocate for. But on the other hand, I have a responsibility to advocate for environmental policy," she said.
Carson went on to tell NBC 10 that, “We have a part-time legislature, as you know. And we need to work at other jobs. That’s the way the system has been designed, and those are the constraints we have to live with. The real conflict seems to be that you pass a law and then you make money off it. That seems to be something that needs to be evaluated.”
Liz Essley Whyte and David Jordan of the Center for Public Integrity, as well as NBC 10's Bill Rappleye, contributed to this report.