Let’s Be Honest About the Ethics Commission

An ethical government is critical for a healthy society, and the burden of enforcing it ultimately falls on the voters.  If unethical officials can get reelected without fail, then imposing small fines on their behavior is simply a cost of doing business.  In that context, as I’ve said before, advisory opinions from an official Ethics Commission can become a mechanism for approving all corruption up to a line.

But what about that line?

Writing about the new Speaker of the House’s professed emphasis on jobs and the economy, Providence Journal columnist Ed Fitzpatrick argues that strong ethics laws have an effect on such matters, too:

“You can’t convince me that being in The New York Times two days in a row for an FBI raid on the State House sends the right message about the way we do business in Rhode Island,” John M. Marion, Common Cause Rhode Island executive director, said. …

I’d argue that restoring Ethics Commission power is not about progressive or conservative government; it’s about good government. I’d argue that ethics and openness are directly tied to the main priorities — jobs and the economy.

Whatever the effect of New York Times coverage, would a restored Ethics Commission have prevented the FBI raid?  I don’t think so.  After all, the commission did recently manage to fine the FBI’s target.

I’m not saying that legislators should be immune to the Ethics Commission; they shouldn’t.  But we have to be careful about seeing the Bureaucracy of Ethics as a magic pill.

For context, I’ll admit that I’m currently down on the Ethics Commission as an agency.  I’ll soon be elaborating on the reasons, but for now, I’ll summarize that it has to do with the complete lack of protection it offers residents of Rhode Island when the conflicts of interest they’re fighting are entirely within government. Conflicts of interest one step into the shadows are entirely invisible to the commission’s government lawyers.

In a separate op-ed, Marion suggests that the Ethics Commission’s advice “protects” citizens and legislators both.  I think that’s incorrect, at least if the citizenry isn’t willing to protect itself, and if the commission’s understanding of ethics is as skewed as the legislators’.

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