Ethics in an Everybody-Knows-Everbody State

An article that Ted Nesi just posted raises difficult questions about the balance of ethics in Rhode Island government, given the state’s size and inclination to regulate.

In summary, Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D, Woonsocket) has continued to submit legislation dealing with check cashing, even though her brother owns a check-cashing business and rents property for that business from her.  Baldelli-Hunt raises a good point:

Baldelli-Hunt described her expertise about check-cashing as an asset to the General Assembly. “If you happen to be informed regarding an industry in the state of Rhode Island and you’re informed about it and you understand that there are issues within that industry that need to be corrected, then I’m a disservice to my constituents if I don’t bring that forward,” she said.

But then, so does John Marion of Common Cause:

State lawmakers’ work has not been subject to the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission, which policies the code, since a 2009 Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling, and therefore there is no formal way to find out whether Baldelli-Hunt’s actions are acceptable, said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. …

“Without a real investigation about the flow of money here and exactly how these multiple pieces of legislation would affect her brother, and in turn her as her brother’s landlord, we can’t answer for sure I don’t think,” he added.

Clearly, there is a balance to be struck.  There’d be something odd about rules that prevented lawmakers from participating in the development of legislation because they have unusual expertise on the subject matter.  Moreover, the very fact of Nesi’s article illustrates that Rhode Island civic society is not without oversight; it just remains for reporters and activists to dig out the details and for constituents to determine whether their representatives have been unethical.

On the other hand, there can be no doubt (especially in Rhode Island) about the ease with which a political in-crowd can game the system for their own benefit and to preserve their own power. In Rhode Island, everybody is connected to everybody by some number of steps, and it isn’t difficult to build undue influence in that environment.

With the campaign finance debate fresh in mind, though, one might wonder whether disclosure rules could be a middle ground.  Each legislator would have to append to each bill a filing about any possible effect that it might have on his or her personal business.  Reporters and activists could review the filings and make noise about anything that appears unethical, and the Ethics Commission’s role would be to enforce the filings in the first place.