Ethics on the Tip of a Government Needle


Some folks expressed skepticism when I said that I doubted the Rhode Island Ethics Commission would find anything wrong with a situation in which Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s administration hired a partisan, Patrick Ward of the Providence Democratic City Committee, and then made a financial agreement with that employee in his capacity as the president of his committee.  Well, readers who visit the Ocean State Current have probably already seen the news that I was right:

The Commission’s ruling stated that because Ward was not a department head or working in the governor’s office, he was not under the “direct control and supervision” of Raimondo, which meant that the agreement did not violate the state ethics code. The Commission based its ruling on precedent from a 2006 case involving state employees and then-governor Donald Carcieri. In that case, the Commission ruled that “employees who served in other (executive) branch agencies, with multiple layers of supervision between that employee and the governor, were not direct subordinates,” said Jason Gramitt, an attorney for the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.

The holes in this standard are obvious.  The governor tells a department head, even casually, that so-and-so would be good for a job, and it’s as good as done.  But this sort of distinction is the regular habit of the Ethics Commission.

People around social media have emphasized that the commission followed its clear precedent, but that doesn’t relieve the sense that something isn’t right, here.  Prior precedent can clearly be wrong, and I’ve personally had conversations with lawyers from the commission who’ve cited fully formed areas of precedent from the past as if it had been implemented by lunatics and wouldn’t be followed going forward.

That isn’t necessarily a purely political matter.  It could just be that the members currently on the commission have a very different philosophy than those who used to serve on the board, or that the members have changed their mind.  Either way, the upshot is that precedent isn’t an iron rule.  Again, the commission’s lawyers emphasized to me that advisory opinions and rulings won’t always cover other people, even in very similar circumstances.  The only full protection is to ask for an advisory opinion for a specific case beforehand.

When it comes to the philosophy of the current commission members, they have a (let’s say) special view of government uniquely as almost altruistic service, making it very difficult to be unethical when acting within government.  Some ruling or opinion somewhere might prove this wrong, but I suspect the commission would come to a different conclusion had Raimondo been the CEO of a large private company and Ward had been a few steps down the org chart in a similar way.

In this view, giving somebody $71,608 (Ward’s government salary) for government work is just different than giving it to him or her in the private sector.  Government work is just more pure.  For that matter, taking actions that will help the governor keep her six-figure job and (probably more important) bring her power is just different than doing the exact same thing to keep a corporate job or increase business leverage.

Why?  Because that’s how the commissioners that the governors have appointed feel about it.