Jim Baron on the Rhode Island Ethics Commission

Jim Baron has an excellent column in today’s Pawtucket Times describing the unusual mix of powers held by the Rhode Island Ethics Commission…

Unique in our otherwise balanced-power government, the ethics commission has soup-to-nuts authority on all things dealing with the behavior of public officials.
It has the power to write ethics law on a par with the legislature. Like a street cop, it can bring a complaint of its own volition if it sees something it deems unsavory. When a complaint is brought to it, the staff takes the job of detective — investigating and ferreting out possible wrongdoing. If the investigators think they find something, the commissioners act as a grand jury, determining if the accusation has merit to go forward. Then the staff prosecutes, building a case to make at a trial-like adjudicative hearing. The commission acts as both judge and jury during that process, conducting the hearing then deliberating and passing judgment later on. If that judgment is guilty, they are also the executioner, assessing and collecting the fine or meting out other punishment. Oh yeah, they also act as bureaucrat, collecting and filing financial disclosure statements.
However, according to Baron, the commission is not all-powerful; it cannot grant the jury trials that former Senate President William Irons and current Senate President Joseph Montalbano have asked for…
One thing is clear: The ethics commission can not grant Irons’ request for a jury trial. It doesn’t have the mechanism to summon or empanel a jury. So the commission has to either deny the demand for a jury or agree to transfer jurisdiction of the case to the Superior Court. And nobody can tell me for sure whether the commission is legally able to transfer jurisdiction on a complaint brought to it.

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