Stop “Unethical, but Legal”
Robert Benson, first vice president of Operation Clean Government, calls for outrage over Superior Court Judge Francis Darigan’s ruling that legislators cannot face consequences for votes cast in response to bribes:
This is not just some arcane legal conundrum of little interest to most Rhode Islanders. Darigan’s decision essentially guts the state’s Code of Ethics and leaves the Ethics Commission powerless when legislators violate this code. His decision is based on a 200-year-old “speech in debate” clause in the Rhode Island Constitution that protects members of the General Assembly from reprisals for their legislative actions. Article VI, Section 5 of the state’s constitution says, “For any speech in debate in either house, no member shall be questioned in any other place.” Judge Darigan believes this sentence trumps a 1986 amendment to the state Constitution that created the Rhode Island Ethics Commission precisely to deal with abuses of office by public officials.
Article III, Section 8 of the Rhode Island Constitution states, “all elected and appointed officials and employees of the state and local government, of boards, commissions and agencies shall be subject to the code of ethics.” The key word is all — it means members of the state General Assembly House and Senate as well as all other elected officials. This amendment further states, “The ethics commission shall have the authority to investigate violations of the code of ethics and to impose penalties, as provided by law.”
Unfortunately, I’m not sure that Rhode Islanders do outrage — at least not against political corruption. The state’s too intertangled with itself; too many backs are being scratched. The pessimist in me concludes that the state will not begin to turn itself around until the various interest groups begin to battle each other, rather than the taxpayer. Of course, the interest groups (unions, poverty industry, Democrat partisans, and so on) have developed an overlapping hierarchy that will resist internal competition as long as possible.
But then, I tend to be an optimist, which leads me to agree with OCG founder Bruce Lang that “Rhode Island can be one of the most successful states in the United States,” and that a positive message, backed by concerted effort and strategic cooperation can implement specific changes to the law, such as the three that Lang lists:
1. Reduce the size and cost of our governments in every possible way — by eliminating and consolidating many jobs, government services, government departments and school systems.
2. Improve the illegal-immigration situation, which must be costing our state at least somewhere between $200 million and $400 million per year.
3. Not only can we not increase taxes, if we are going to become competitive as a state we must begin (even if takes years) to reduce taxes, such as estate and certain corporate and individual income tax rates.
Increasingly, I’m persuaded that the ultimate determinant of reform’s success will be the opposition movement’s ability to get its act together. That’ll mean putting egos aside, elevating the goal above the process, and refusing to let the forces of the status quo amplify our differences beyond both.