Rhode Islanders who watch the inner workings of state government were subjected to a bit of whiplash this morning.
Upon seeing reports on Twitter that the Ethics Commission’s legal staff had concluded that Senator Erin Lynch Prata could not slip right into a state Supreme Court seat courtesy the votes of her friends in the Senate, I expressed disbelief to participants in a Zoom meeting that the commission was actually standing up to the insider system in Rhode Island. After the meeting ended, I had to text the participants with the correction that the commission had actually rejected the recommendation of its staff. Crony appointments are alive and well in the Ocean State.
One thing that is not alive and well is the Ethics Commission. Indeed, my first thought upon reading the news was that the state should call a Constitutional Convention in order to disband the Ethics Commission. At this point, it is…
- Another disincentive for citizen participation in state and local government, requiring yet another disclosure of personal information for every official, large and small.
- Another means of time-consuming legal complaints for political reasons.
- Another agency that decides wrongdoing on subjective grounds (albeit with a patina of legal justification) in a suspiciously tilted fashion.
- A means of bestowing legitimacy on any corruption that falls within the subjective application of a technical rule, giving permission for unethical actions, rather than setting boundaries.
It was bad enough when the commission found nothing wrong with the governor’s two-decade, billion-dollar, no-bid gift to a company with which she had personal connections. This fix-is-in move against the advice of its own staff is a step too far. For good reason did Common Cause Rhode Island declare that it was “sickened by the events that unfolded at today’s meeting of the R.I. Ethics Commission.”
The last thing Rhode Island needs is a young Supreme Court justice who enters the court under a cloud of ethical suspicion this dark. The second-last thing Rhode Island needs is an Ethics Commission that bestows legitimacy on corruption while finding or not finding violations in a pick-and-choose fashion.