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NEW: Common Cause Renews Push for General Assembly Oversight

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Common Cause is renewing its call to restore the Ethics Commissions' oversight powers over the General Assembly.

After a 2009 Rhode Island Supreme Court decision stripped the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction over the “core legislative acts” of members of the General Assembly, many government watchdog groups expressed concern over the potential ramifications of the ruling and vowed to fight it in the State House only to see it die in the Senate a year later due to a lack of support.

Now, they’re trying a different approach to tackling the issue: bringing it to the voters of the state directly.

Later today, Rhode Island Senator Edward O’Neill and Representative Michael Marcello will reportedly introduce resolutions in the State Senate and House, respectively, that have the support of a total of 48 co-signors to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in the 2014 election that would restore the Ethics Commissions’ oversight of the General Assembly.

The push is part of an initiative by the government reform group Common Cause to reverse the 2009 Supreme Court decision and, if approved, would make an exception in the "speech in debate" clause of the Rhode Island Constitution allowing the Ethics Commission to prosecute legislators for violating the state Code of Ethics.

"It's past time for the General Assembly to let the voters decide whether one group deserves broad immunity from our ethics laws in Rhode Island," says John Marion, executive director of Common Cause. "Rhode Island has some of the toughest ethics laws in the country," says Marion "and the General Assembly should not be preventing the citizens of Rhode Island from taking this vote."

The key question, it appears, is debate over what the people of Rhode Island meant when they created the Ethics Commission in 1986.

Marcello and O’Neill’s plan would make it crystal clear.

"When voters approved the constitutional amendment establishing the Ethics Commission more than a quarter century ago, the people of Rhode Island intended their jurisdiction to include the General Assembly," said Marcello. "While the court's ruling may be right as a matter of law, it was never anyone's intent to grant the members of the legislature a free pass on ethical issues."

"It is not for the General Assembly leadership to decide what the voters of Rhode Island meant in 1986 when they created the Ethics Commission," says Senator O'Neill. "If any group of should be subject to ethics oversight it is the General Assembly because without it citizens cannot trust that legislators are acting in the public's interest and not their own self-interest."


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