Rhode Island is one of 23 states in which an outside ethics agency oversees ethical conduct of state legislators. It is one of 13 of those states where the ethics agency also oversees personal financial disclosure for members of the legislature.
Rhode Island is among the 22 states that established outside oversight of ethical conduct and/or disclosure requirements of legislators in the post-Watergate 1970s.
Of the 32 states that have outside oversight of ethical conduct and/or disclosure requirements for legislators — 23 that cover ethics and disclosure, plus nine that cover disclosure only — Rhode Island is one of 17 where the legislature has some involvement in choosing commission members. Only three states — California, Hawaii and Massachusetts — have members picked without the input of the legislature.
Rhode Island is among 22 states that did approve a budget for its ethics agency exceeding the rate of inflation, or 7 percent, between 1997 and 2000. Those states include Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin. Six state ethics agency budgets — in Arkansas, Georgia, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey and Washington — at least doubled during this time period.
To identify the extent of outside oversight applied to state legislators, the Center included six categories of conduct often found in ethics law in the survey of state ethics agencies: conflicts of interest, improper use of office/abuse of power, nepotism, acceptance of honorarium and gifts and post-term employment restrictions. Of the 23 states in which there is outside oversight of ethical conduct, all have a provision dealing with lawmakers’ possible conflicts of interest. Rhode Island’s ethics agency also oversees the other five categories of conduct for legislators.
Of the 32 two states with outside ethics and/or disclosure oversight, only two ethics agencies — in Florida and West Virginia — cannot initiate an investigation or investigate an anonymous complaint. Only one agency, Alabama’s, cannot issue subpoenas.
Only Nebraska’s ethics agency can directly prosecute criminal cases against legislators; 25 more agencies can recommend criminal prosecution to the appropriate authority, including Rhode Island’s ethics agency. Only Rhode Island’s ethics agency has the power to remove legislators from office; another 11 state agencies can recommend removal as part of punishment.
Opinions and Investigative Findings
All 32 outside agencies that oversee some ethics and/or disclosure requirements for legislators can issue advisory opinions. Rhode Island is one of 18 states that does publish legislator names within the advisory opinion reports, which can be found on the agency’s Web site.
Just three states — Connecticut, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — have not issued a finding against a legislator for violating disclosure-filing requirements in the past five years. However, out of the 23 agencies that oversee some aspect of legislative conduct, Rhode Island’s is one of 10 state ethics agencies that has issued a finding against a legislator for violating conduct laws in the past five years.
Rhode Island is among the 18 state agencies, of 32 with oversight of ethics and/or disclosure laws for the legislature, that have at least one public meeting per month; minutes for those meetings are on the Web site.
Note: Some information provided by the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws’ “Ethics Update” 2000. For more information or to purchase the reference, visit www.cogel.org.