Former Republican state senator Dawson Hodgson made an interesting point on Twitter recently:
Yes, the RI Ethics Commission is little more than a political score settling arena. No, more secrecy isn’t the answer. New leadership culture would be: replace staff & body, hold both ethics code violators and malicious complaint filers to account.
I’m not sure I’d go as far as Hodgson in minimizing the current role of the commission. Yes, complaints can be mechanism for political gotcha, but fear of complaints leads many officials to seek advisory opinions, or at least to be sufficiently familiar with the state’s Code of Ethics to have a sense of when they should think of doing so. There’s some value to that.
My problem with the Ethics Commission is that its decisions often seem to start with whether something feels right and then dig into (often contradictory) precedence for rationalization. Worse, what “feels right” to commissioners is overly favorable to the enterprise of government. Take some action that would be obvious corruption if it crossed between the public and private sectors and put it entirely in the public sector, and the corruption is assumed away. As long as everything is accomplished within the walls of government, it doesn’t matter that the people involved have a personal financial interest.*
So, yes, I agree with Hodgson that the commission needs a new “culture,” but I’m skeptical that changing out every person in the office would make much difference. Empowering an agency to issue official government proclamations about the behavior of people who regularly engage in political contests will always create an opening for political maneuvering.
The culture that needs to change is that of the electorate. For starters, we need more people willing to run, but more than that, we need voters who actually care about the behavior of their officials. If that doesn’t exist, no law or regulation will remain free of corruption.
* Actually, the commission of the late 1990s began to acknowledge the possibility of intra-government corruption, but by the late ’00s, staff of the commission would actually take shots at their predecessors on this point.