Will the Senate Finance Chair Recuse from the State Budget?

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Back in 2014, the Ocean State Current highlighted the ethical complications when lawyers who contract with government agencies take elective seats in the General Assembly.  Specifically, when Democrat Senator from East Providence/Pawtucket William Conley took a contract for state work after having won his seat, was that simply the continuation of an ongoing contractor relationship, or a fresh contract?

The Ethics Commission has not yet answered that question decisively, but here’s another one:  Should Senator Conley recuse from voting on or participating in debate concerning the state budget, considering that he is the Town Solicitor of Westerly?  The issue comes up because, as Dale Faulkner reports for the Westerly Sun, Conley is complaining that the council of that town is requesting more work than he contracted to provide:

Conley’s firm is paid an annual flat fee of $90,000 for attending council and departmental meetings, maintaining office hours at Town Hall, and attending meetings with the town manager. The firm is also responsible for drafting or reviewing proposed contracts, policies and procedures and undertaking legal research and producing legal opinions for the council and other town officials, and drafting ordinances.

“We anticipate that these services will involve the expenditure of a minimum of 40 hours per month, but we will place no limit on our time devoted to such matters and as may be necessary to provide the best possible outcome for our client,” Conley wrote in a letter, that serves as his contract, to Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy and Celico.

All other legal work, such as litigation and representation in lawsuits, is charged at the firm’s discounted rate of $175 per hour.

Obviously, Mr. Conley has a business relationship with the municipality with which he has contracted to provide legal services.  And obviously, the state budget has a substantial effect on Westerly’s ability to pay for those legal services, among all of its expenditures.  Currently, the governor’s budget proposal recommends $5.5 million for the municipal government of Westerly and another $8.6 million for its schools.

Unfortunately, the Ethics Commission has in the past taken the position that transactions are only tainted if they are influenced by the corrupting power of the private sector — with all its voluntary arrangements and free market pressures.  When a group of people in a town can force other people to pay the legal bill of a man who has a prominent role in a legislature that can force everybody in Rhode Island to give money to the town, that is known as “representative democracy.”



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