A concrete example of a situation in which the state Ethics Commission should have some authority over legislators might give anybody on the fence on ballot question #2 a nudge. By way of a reminder, owing to a court case, the commission is not permitted to investigate allegations that legislators have conflicts of interest. Senators and representatives can vote for legislation that will profit them directly, and the Ethics Commission has no authority even to investigate. Ballot question #2 would repair that check against corruption.
Consider Democrat Representative Cale Keable (Burrillville, Glocester). According to his official biography, Keable is employed by Providence legal firm Partridge Snow & Hahn, where he works in civil litigation, especially “real estate, construction disputes and environmental litigation.” According to the state transparency site, Partridge Snow & Hahn has received more than half a million dollars of business from the state government of Rhode Island over the past few years, most of it specifically from the Department of Transportation, for which the firm has handled “infrastructure – engineering” matters and “agency bonds.”
And yet, Keable voted for the DOT’s RhodeWorks toll-and-borrow plan.
Given its often-disappointing approach, the Ethics Commission might not find that to be a problem, even were it fully empowered to investigate. It’s conceivable that Keable will receive direct benefit in his role at Partridge Snow & Hahn from RhodeWorks (say, by handling litigation arising from the road reconfiguration). Or, on the other end of the spectrum, his role in the firm may be completely disconnected from anything having to do with its government contracts (as disconnected as it’s possible to be within a single company, that is).
In other words, the Ethics Commission might look into the matter and conclude that Keable’s vote did not represent a conflict of interest under the code of ethics. But right now, the commission can’t even look into it, leaving Rhode Islanders with no reason to do anything but assume the worst about their legislators.