AG Candidate Hodgson Tackles One of Rhode Island’s Big Problems

This is a pleasant campaign-season surprise:

State Sen. Dawson Hodgson, the Republican candidate for attorney general, attacked incumbent Peter F. Kilmartin, a Democrat, on Monday for awarding more than $47,000 in legal work to a sitting state legislator.

Hodgson, R-North Kingstown, accused Kilmartin of violating the state ethics code, which prohibits an elected official from accepting state employment. If elected in November, Hodgson has vowed to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the matter.

The flap over the legal work was first reported by blogger Justin Katz, who wrote for Anchor Rising & The Ocean State Current that state Sen. William J. Conley Jr., D-East Providence, was awarded the no-bid contract. Hodgson said that Conley was hired to perform legal work for “developmentally disabled people in the work force,” and was paid $150 an hour.

Of course, it’s nice to have one’s work recognized, but it’s even better to see a Rhode Island politician trying to revive a critical mechanism for ensuring good, clean government.

We have to acknowledge, first, that regulation 36-14-5007 doesn’t specifically say that it is contrary to the Code of Ethics to offer a job to sitting legislators.  So, while it is clearly inappropriate for the attorney general (who should be an expert on ethics regulations) to be luring legislators into a violations, there may not be an enforceable complaint against him.

Even if there were, some might argue that the Ethics Commission is next to useless, perhaps even contributing to Rhode Island’s lack of the rule of law.  Who wants to put himself or herself forward, trying to ensure that Rhode Island government follows its own rules, when the commission charged with hearing the cases can be expected to tie the Code of Ethics into knots to avoid making controversial decisions?  (Controversial not because they’re questionable on the law, but because they would hold insiders accountable and challenge the status quo in the state.)

In such an environment, Senator Hodgson’s action is all the more important.  When the law does not seem to apply, the remedy for illegal and inappropriate behavior by elected and appointed officials is political.  People who want to take an office have to tell voters about the bad behavior and make an issue of it, and then voters have to hold the incumbents accountable by giving the alternative candidates a chance.

The insider machine in Rhode Island may have dug in too deeply, at this point, for even the political system to work correctly.  We’ll see, but it’s still critical for those who love the state and want to see its people prospering to try for a fix.

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