Creating a Non-Partisan Image for Corruption

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Something’s bugging me about Karen Lee Ziner’s generally helpful article, yesterday, listing some recently disgraced Rhode Island legislators.  Whatever Ziner’s intentions, if I were to set out to write an article that obscured the connection between Democrats and corruption on the list, I don’t know that I’d have done anything different.

The list contains 11 legislators.  Of those, 10 are Democrats, and one is Republican.  However, only five of the Democrats are identified as such.  Moreover, the lone Republican, former House Minority Leader Robert Watson is also unique on the list as being the only one whose scandal didn’t involve some sort of private or public corruption.  Watson got jammed up with the law over minor substance abuse issues (like DUI and marijuana possession).  That’s not nearly as relevant to a story about dishonest politicians as abusing influence or scamming for money.

In fairness, of course, Republicans in the Rhode Island legislature have been protected from corruption by the fact that they don’t have much power to speak of, and I wouldn’t expect them to remain pure after spending the better part of a century in unchallenged power, either.  Still, voters should make decisions based on the world as it currently exists, not an abstract principle that the parties would be the same under identical circumstances.

It’s not just that Democrat power in Rhode Island allows corruption.  The existence of opportunity will inevitably attract the corrupt to the power.  The best anti-corruption move would be to have a more-even government, with neither side being so entrenched that a few scandals couldn’t flip the advantage.  Not only would that divide up the power available for corruption, but it would give both sides incentive to police themselves and the ability to policy the other.

In other words, a list of corrupt politicians who are all Democrats should be a signal to the electorate that the General Assembly is dangerously imbalanced.  Apparently, though, Ziner and her editors don’t want that signal to be sent, so they made sure a Republican is on the list, and they omitted the party identification for half of the Democrats to leave the impression that they might be divided between the parties.



  • Bob Washburn

    Rhode Island needs an independent Inspector Genera if we are ever to root out elected and appointed official corruption. Democrat party control of the General Assembly will not give way to the Republicans any time soon.

    To see how a state can go from corruption relative honesty, take a look at our neigbor state to the north:

    The Massachusetts General Court (legislature) has been controlled by Democrats since the 1930s.

    Until the late 1970s, Massachusetts had the same reputation for political corruption as we have now in Rhode Island. It took a college building scandal and a courageous governor to move MA from corrupt state to (mostly) honest state.

    Michael Dukakis in1978 appointed the Ward Commission, led by Amherst College’s president to study statewide corruption and to make recommendations on how to clean things up.

    The Ward Commission work resulted in the creation of the Office of Inspector General, reporting to the governor (and his successor), and as a result, several senators, and crooked construction company executives went to jail.

    While several Massachusetts house speakers have committed crimes and were sent to prison, MA state government is considered relatively crime free.

    Rep. Daniel Reilly (R-Portsmouth) has a bill to create the IG office in Rhode Island. So far, Speaker Mattiello has told Mr. Reilly that the state’s crew of auditors is all we need to root out corruption. As recent events have unfolded, clearly the auditor system is not getting at the real problems.

    Isn’t it time for the Speaker to take Rep. Reilly’s bill and help the state of Rhode Island on the way to political honesty and good government?

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