Sheehan introduces ‘common ground’ constitutional amendment to restore ethics oversight of state legislature
STATE HOUSE — Sen. James C. Sheehan has once again introduced a resolution calling for a referendum on a constitutional amendment that would re-establish the authority of the Ethics Commission over the core legislative acts of the General Assembly while preserving the venerated tradition of “free speech” for each member.
Further, the “common ground” amendment would provide any legislator who violated the code of ethics with the right to a trial by jury on appeal for any conduct that was criminal in nature at the time of Common Law. Lastly, the proposed amendment would set the composition of the Ethics Commission into the constitution as well as balance the number of Ethics commissioners nominated by the House and Senate leaders.
After hearing the concerns of legislators and others during the testimony for last year’s resolution, Senator Sheehan, who has worked on restoring the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction for 6 years, reworked the resolution to address some of the more valid points that were raised.
The first notable compromise involves tightening the language of the broad “speech in debate” immunity that legislators now enjoy. In the amendment, legislators would be specifically free “to engage in public discussion, prior to any vote, on the floor of the House of Representatives or the Senate or in committees thereof.
“In other words, the Ethics Commission would once again be able to vigorously pursue charges against legislators for unethical behavior such as voting for legislation wherein he or she has a conflict of interest. At the same time, the Ethics Commission would not be able to regulate or sanction the free expression of legislators," stated Senator Sheehan.
The new amendment also is intended to preserve the right of trial by jury for any public official or public employee found guilty of an ethics violation, so long as it is for a serious offense.
In a 2009 ruling, in a case involving former Senate President William V. Irons, the Rhode Island Supreme Court effectively exempted state lawmakers from scrutiny and prosecution by the state Ethics Commission for violations relating to their core legislative acts such as voting, sponsoring bills and introducing legislation. The court interpreted the Constitution’s “speech-in-debate” clause — which exists to protect lawmakers from civil suits for anything they might say in the heat of public debate — to be a shield from prosecution for any of their “core acts,” including voting, even in cases where there might be a clear conflict of interest.
The late Sen. J. Michael Lenihan took up the effort to restore the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission following the 2009 decision. Senator Sheehan took-up the banner of ethics reform after Senator Lenihan retired in 2010. Since then, and at the behest of Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, Senator Sheehan has worked to find a common ground compromise on ethics reform. Working with various stakeholders, Senator Sheehan believes he has found such a compromise bill this year.
“Far too many people mistrust their state government because they believe it to be corrupt or unethical. We need to rebuild the trust between the people and their government. Closing this ‘legislators’ loophole,’ is a good start” said Senator Sheehan. “We need clearly to signal to the public that ethics in government matters.”
If approved by the General Assembly and signed into law this year, the ballot question would go before voters during the 2016 general election.
For more information, contact:
Daniel Trafford, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903