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Quixotic mission: policing ethics in RI


Not for nothing, but Kent Willever had an interesting choice for a bit of office decoration when he took up the job as executive director of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.

As I wrote in 2002:

An illustration of Don Quixote seems like an appropriate image for the man who faces the challenge of restoring the battered reputation of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. But Kent A. Willever, who became the commission's director after his predecessor was unceremoniously sacked last April, says the placement of the decoration in his office reflects just an uncharacteristic bit of whimsy. "I had been given so much advice when I was first getting ready to take over this office, about how difficult it was going to be, like tilting at windmills," Willever says. "But I said, `I'm not crazy, I'm not like Don Quixote.' I just hung it on my wall more as a conversation piece than anything else."

Fair enough. In fact, Governor Carcieri deserves credit for subsequently strengthening the Ethics Commission with some of his appointments.

Yet a recent decision by Judge Francis Darigan poses a serious obstacle to the commission's work -- a topic taken up yesterday in Ed Fitzpatrick's second consecutive excellent column -- seemingly returning it to the kind of neutered state that it occupied in the meltdown prior to Willever's arrival.

Rhode Island’s former Senate president, William V. Irons, invoked a constitutional claim of legislative immunity from a state Ethics Commission prosecution back in November 2007. And last month, a Superior Court judge dismissed ethics charges against Irons, saying the Ethics Commission can’t prosecute Irons based on his legislative activities because of the “speech-in-debate” clause in the state Constitution.

The commission plans to appeal Darigan's decision, and Fitzpatrick expresses his skepticism about whether it will be successful. Good point; for what it's worth, let's remember that Frank Williams, chief justice of the RI Supreme Court, was very critical of Willever's ill-fated predecessor at the Ethics Commission.

Driving home the significance of this issue, Fitzpatrick, getting his sea legs as a columnist, writes:

I agree we need to protect legislators from meddling by other branches of government, especially from whatever politician happens to be governor. But should we protect legislators from an independent, nonpartisan Ethics Commission?

I’m sure legislators would appreciate that protection. But given the potential for a part-time legislature to have conflicts of interest involving legislative activities, I don’t think that protection is warranted. Not now. Not when, for the first time in history, two top legislators — former House Majority Leader Gerard M. Martineau and former Senate Corporations Committee Chairman John A. Celona — are behind bars for corruption.

As they say at the State House, “out of an abundance of caution,” Rhode Island needs an Ethics Commission with a full set of teeth.

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