Sheehan proposes constitutional amendment on ethics to go before state voters
STATE HOUSE – Sen. James C. Sheehan (D-Dist. 36, Narragansett, North Kingstown) has introduced legislation, 2014-S 2824, that would ask Rhode Island voters to decide – through a constitutional amendment – the makeup and powers of the Ethics Commission and specifically its authority over members of the General Assembly.
The language proposed in the constitutional amendment that would go before voters, said Senator Sheehan, is “the result of years of working with various parties to find a compromise resolution that preserves free speech while restoring the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction over core legislative duties.”
One proposed constitutional change would clarify language in the much-debated “speech in debate” clause of the constitution that shields lawmakers from prosecution or civil suits based on their actions as legislators, such as proposing or voting on a bill.
As proposed in the Sheehan resolution, the language of that article of the constitution would specify that “for any speech in debate in either house, no member shall be questioned in any other place except by the Ethics Commission, provided that members of the General Assembly shall be free, without question to penalty, to express an opinion or engage in debate, verbally or in writing, relative to any matter within their core legislative duties.”
“When voters approved the establishment of the Ethics Commission more than two decades ago, the assumption was that ethical behavior would be expected of all elected officials,” said Senator Sheehan. “However, the mere existence of the Ethics Commission was never intended to stifle debate or keep legislators from carrying out their duties. The language I propose should make that abundantly clear.”
At the same time, Senator Sheehan is proposing language relative to the Ethics Commission that will clearly spell out the responsibilities, authority and composition of that body. The two proposed constitutional amendments would read as follows:
Section 8. Ethics commission -- Code of ethics -- Jurisdiction. -- The general assembly shall establish an independent non-partisan ethics commission which shall adopt a code of ethics including, but not limited to, provisions on conflicts of interest, confidential information, use of position, contracts with government agencies and financial disclosure. All elected and appointed officials and employees of state and local government, of boards, commissions and agencies shall be subject to the code of ethics and the jurisdiction of the ethics commission. The ethics commission shall have the jurisdiction and authority to investigate and adjudicate all alleged violations of the code of ethics and to impose penalties, as provided by law; and the commission shall have the power to remove from office officials who are not subject to impeachment.
Section 9: Ethics commission composition -- The ethics commission shall be composed of nine (9) members appointed by the governor, provided that the president of the senate, the minority leader of the senate, the speaker of the house of representatives, the majority leader of the house of representatives, and the minority leader of the house of representatives shall each submit to the governor a list of names of at least five (5) individuals from which the governor shall appoint one (1) individual from each of the lists so submitted and four (4) individuals without regard to the lists submitted by the legislative leaders. The terms of service for the appointed members shall be as provided by law.
“There has been and continues to be debate about the Ethics Commission and its authority,” said Senator Sheehan. “A strong Ethics Commission is certainly important to the proper and appropriate function of government officials, but it needs to be clearly spelled out exactly how strong that body is. I believe the language I am proposing, if approved by voters, will resolve many of these issues.”
The bill has been co-sponsored by 22 Senators.
For more information, contact:
Randall T. Szyba, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903