A Week Later, Still Inclined to Dissolve the Ethics Commission

As with soon-regretted tweets or other social media posts, bloggers and other quick-posting commentators can sometimes find it desirable to modify their opinions upon some reflection.  A week after I suggested it might be time to dissolve the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, however, I’m still of the same mind.

Stated simply, the commission ruled that Senator Erin Lynch Prata (D, Warwick, Cranston) is free to hop right out of her elected office into a seat on the Rhode Island Supreme Court.  The commissioners ruled that way despite the following language in the state Code of Ethics:

No elected or appointed official may accept any appointment or election that requires approval by the body of which he or she is or was a member, to any position which carries with it any financial benefit or remuneration, until the expiration of one (1) year after termination of his or her membership in or on such body, unless the Ethics Commission shall give its approval for such appointment or election, and, further provided, that such approval shall not be granted unless the Ethics Commission is satisfied that denial of such employment or position would create a substantial hardship for the body, board, or municipality.

As well as this language right next to it:

No member of the General Assembly shall seek or accept state employment, not held at the time of the member’s election, while serving in the General Assembly and for a period of one (1) year after leaving legislative office.  For purposes of this regulation, “employment” shall include service as defined in R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-2(4) and shall also include service as an independent contractor or consultant to the state or any state agency, whether as an individual or a principal of an entity performing such service.

If you’re wondering, the definition of “employment” referred to in that section does include the judiciary.  In short, anybody who thinks the Code of Ethics should mean what it literally says can only conclude that the Ethics Commission fudged its decision based on corrupt dealings.

This would be bad enough, but don’t forget that the Ethics Commission also imposes regulations on all candidates for elective or appointed office, which includes people we’d usually just see as civically minded volunteers.  I know people who’ve stopped or decided not to pursue helping fill local openings because having to list details from finances and family was both an intrusive hassle.

Maybe that trade-off is worthwhile (and maybe it isn’t), but when the same body holding up these hoops to jump through shows that it is willing to ignore the actual Code of Ethics when politically expedient, the whole thing appears to be a sham.  The commission implicitly treats every Rhode Islander who considers any sort of public role as a prospective source of scandal, but when it comes to cut-and-dried application of the code to powerful insiders, suddenly good will is assumed and the rules don’t apply.

So, yes, dissolve the Ethics Commission.

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