Background and History
In 1986 the voters approved an amendment to the Rhode Island Constitution requiring high standards of conduct of public officials and establishing an independent, non-partisan Ethics Commission to adopt an ethics code including, but not limited to, conflicts of interest and the use of office for personal gain.
RI Constitution Art. III §§ 7 and 8. - The RI Ethics Panel
The Rhode Island Ethics Commission is one of the strongest in the nation with the power not only to make ethics regulations but to investigate alleged violations, prosecute those with probable cause of actual violations, and to fine or remove from public office those officials not subject to impeachment who the commission finds have violated ethics laws and regulations. RI Const. Art. III § 8. RIGL § 36-14.
Since 1987 Common Cause has worked closely with the Ethics Commission to gain passage of regulations which will ensure that public officials are held to the highest standards of official conduct. These accomplishments, and the need for further strengthened regulations, are described below.
Strengthened Prohibitions Against Nepotism
“Nepotism” comes from the Latin word for “nephew.” The term is used when someone in power does favors for a relative, including and especially appointing the relative to a government job.
Rhode Island’s Code of Ethics has always contained bans on nepotism, but until January 9, 2007, the ban was limited to blood relations of an official subject to the code. [Ethics Regulation 36-14-5004 and -5005]. On January 9th, the Rhode Island Ethics Commission approved a strengthened ban which greatly expands the definition of “family member” and adds household members to the ban. Officials subject to the code who live with others not related to them by marriage or blood ties may not do favors for their house-mates.
The commission has yet to extend the ban on officials, who are part of a larger class, from participating in a vote or action when a conflict of interest exists. Common Cause Rhode Island has urged the commission to take that step. The new regulations do prohibit officials from participating in collective bargaining negotiations when family or household members are affected.
See RIGL § 36-14-7(b) for the “class exception.”
Strengthened Revolving Door Prohibitions
At the same meeting the Ethics Commission added to the list of jobs which former state officials cannot take for a year after they leave their state jobs. The ban now includes employment as a contractor or consultant to the state or any of its agencies. [Ethics Regulations 36-14-5014 the Municipal Official Revolving Door ban, and Regulation 36-14-5015.]
Tightening the Ban on Gifts to Public Officials
In May of 2000, despite overwhelming public testimony to the contrary, the Ethics Commission (dominated by six lawyers on the nine-member board) voted 5-4 to raise the $25 limit on gifts to officials subject to the code to $150 per occasion with an aggregate annual limit of $450 per donor to any single official subject to the code. In January of 2007, the present Ethics Commission voted to tighten the regulation. Gifts over $25 are now banned, with an aggregate annual limit of $75 per single donor to any official subject to the Code.
Strengthening the Public Accountability Act
During the 2000's, sections of the Rhode Island General Laws have been amended to require lobbyists and their employers to report full details about what they spend on campaign contributions, lobbyists’ compensation, and various gifts and other expenses designed to influence decisions in both the executive and legislative branches.
One major element in these amendments is the requirement that lobbyists and their employers now report annually anything of value over $250 which they promise or give to “major state decision-makers,” meaning those in state government with significant supervisory, regulatory, or financial responsibilities. Exact copies of these annual reports, which are filed with the Secretary of State, must also go to the Ethics Commission and to any state decision-maker to whom $250 or more was promised or given.
See RIGL § 22-10-9 for the financial reports required of lobbyists and their employers.
While these measures are inconsistent with each other, especially as to the reporting thresholds for what lobbyists and their employers must report and what officials subject to the code must report. See RIGL § 36-14-6 for the financial disclosure statement required to be filed annually by all officials subject to the Rhode Island Code of Ethics.
Restoring the Ethics Commissions' Jurisdiction
In June 2009, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled in the case of William V. Irons v. the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. The Court held that members of the General Assembly are immune from prosecution by the Ethics Commission for their "core legislative acts" because of the protections afforded to them under the "speech in debate" clause of the Rhode Island Constitution.
See No. 08-335 22-10-9 for a copy of the decision.
Common Cause advocated for a resolution during the 2010 General Assembly session that would put before the voters an amendment to the state constitution providing for a limited repeal of the speech and debate clause for the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission. The resolution passed the House of Representatives on June 2, 2010, but was never considered by the Senate. Common Cause Rhode Island will continue to make restoring the jurisidiction of the Ethics Commission a top priority.