Ethics reform now!

Our community is angry. Our state is frustrated. And we should be!

Rhode Islanders deserve a state government we can trust. We should be able to assume that our elected officials will serve with honesty and integrity. As we saw (once again) this past week with the resignation of one of my colleagues in the House, that assumption is still tragically far from a safe one.

Now, it is true that we can never 100% guarantee ethical behavior by our public officials; people are people, and some are flawed. But we can create systems of accountability and oversight to ensure - as much as is humanly possible - that politicians are kept honest.

Right now, those systems are not all in place, as evidenced by the state Ethics Commission's lack of jurisdiction over the General Assembly.

Quick backstory in case this isn't familiar to you: in 2009, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that the "speech in debate" clause of the state Constitution protected legislators from prosecution during the performance of their core duties, like voting and debating on the floor. Since then the Ethics Commission has stopped investigating conflict-of-interest complaints that involve legislators voting or introducing legislation.

I realized the magnitude of this lack of oversight after my own election a year and a half ago. I asked to meet with a lawyer from the Ethics Commission to get some basic guidelines on how to stay as far away as possible from any conflicts of interest that might come up. I was stunned when the lawyer said he couldn't even offer me an advisory opinion regarding my questions. "You may as well be a representative from Connecticut, for all the jurisdiction I have over you," he said.

That's a crazy situation. While there are a lot of upstanding and honorable people serving in the legislature, everyone, in every field, needs oversight and accountability - and clearly this field needs it more than most.

That's why I have done my best to be a broken record about the need to restore ethics oversight on speech in debate within the General Assembly since my election. And if there's a silver lining from last week's ugly scandal, it may be that the momentum on this issue seems to have shifted. In fact, new legislation to this effect is being introduced this week.

There's still a lot of work to make sure this legislation is as strong and effective as possible, so we're not out of the woods yet. But I think there's a real path forward - and that's a huge development!