Little energy in R.I. Assembly to revive Ethics Commission powers

Where is the voter “outrage”? Without an “ethics commission” in RI State Government who is watching out for the best interests of the voters and tax payers?

At a State House hearing last week on this year’s renewed push by State House outsiders to reinstate ethics scrutiny of the insiders, Liz Taber, a real estate agent from Newport (who is also president of Citizens Concerned About Casino Gambling), told the lawmakers: ‘
“This place is filled with white hats, but … Speaker Fox sounded just like every other honorable [representative] … That’s why you’re all sullied with it. You clearly can’t police yourselves.”

It appears that even the conviction of House Speaker Gordon Fox on federal corruption charges has not broken the years-long legislative stalemate over the lack of Ethics Commission scrutiny — and enforcement power — over Rhode Island’s state legislators.

More than 10 years ago, in 2004, state representatives attend a seminar on ethics in the House lounge, presented by the staff attorney/education coordinator of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. Then-House Majority Leader Gordon Fox, left, is among the lawmakers at the seminar. Fox will be sentenced June 11 after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges. Journal file photo

Providence Journal By Katherine Gregg
 Journal State House Bureau Posted Apr. 18, 2015 at 11:00 PM

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The shadow of Gordon Fox hangs over the State House.
With it comes the indelible image of State House lobbyists queued up to pay homage, in the form of “campaign” contributions, to a House speaker who then used their money — more than $100,000 of it — to pay for his living expenses, luxury cars and purchases at Tiffany’s.

An unrelated $52,500 bribe. A guilty plea to federal corruption charges. A tearful “I’m just so sorry” at the courthouse.

But not even this stunning March 3 development has broken the years-long legislative stalemate over the lack of Ethics Commission scrutiny — and enforcement power — over Rhode Island’s state legislators.

But action appears unlikely, because that is not how key lawmakers — including House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello — see it.

As he sees it, “the charges against Gordon Fox are criminal in nature and relate to his abuse of the campaign finance system. We have taken swift action to pass comprehensive campaign finance reform that requires submission of bank statements, prohibits the commingling of funds and requires a second treasurer to certify campaign reports for accounts over $10,000.

“Gordon Fox is going to jail for a substantial period of time, and ethics oversight would not have provided any meaningful additional deterrent for such behavior,” he said Friday.
But something did happen on the ethics front last week that illustrates the dilemma for well-meaning lawmakers trying to do the right thing.

Freshman state Rep. Daniel P. McKiernan asked the Rhode Island Ethics Commission if he could partner in a law firm with long-standing Rhode Island lobbyist Patrick Quinlan, whose clients include the Rhode Island Physical Therapy Association, Rhode Island Dental Association, the Rhode Island Society of Anesthesiologists and Rhode Island Consulting Engineers.

The Ethics Commission took the position Tuesday that it can no longer advise McKiernan or any other state lawmaker to avoid conflicts of interest, as it did for legislators facing similar quandaries in the decades before the Rhode Island Supreme Court nipped its enforcement powers over legislators.

In its written response to McKiernan, the commission said: “The petitioner’s ability to engage in legislative acts that may financially impact his firm, his law partners or their lobbying clients is not a matter that is currently within the jurisdiction of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.”