Legislature should pass Raimondo ethics reforms
Kudos to Governor Gina Raimondo for proposing sound ethics legislation. Her bills include barring anyone with overdue campaign fines from running for office and one for auditing 25 percent of all candidates who raise or spend more than $10,000 in an election cycle. While she acknowledges that there is no silver bullet for ethics reform, nonetheless the legislature would restore some modicum of the people’s confidence in enacting her recommendations.
Some naysayers lined up to raise the specter that her legislation might be unconstitutional if enacted by the General Assembly. I think not, but I turned for advice to the co-author, Patrick T. Conley, of one of my treasured constitutional tomes, "The Rhode Island Constitution: A Reference Guide", a 155,000 word volume he wrote with Robert Flanders, a sterling attorney as well. In short, Patrick T. Conley thinks that the legislation would be constitutional if enacted. Here’s why:
In the 1973 Constitutional Convention, then-delegate Conley spearheaded the adoption of Article IV, Section 9 of the Rhode Island Constitution. This provision directs the General Assembly to require campaign reports. Accordingly, in furtherance of this power, the legislature, in effect, has made compliance with this provision a reasonable qualification for office. The de facto violation of the provision as evidenced by fines for the non-filing of the reports would pass constitutional muster according to legal constitutional scholar, Patrick T. Conley.
As he noted in our conversation, the legislature has prescribed other qualifications (or disqualifications) for office. Candidates for office must be registered to vote thirty days prior to filing a declaration of candidacy. The declaration must be filed within established time limits. Nomination papers must be submitted containing the required number of valid signatures of eligible voters. All of these requirements established by the General Assembly are reasonable.
Dr. Conley (JD, PhD) further noted that if the General Assembly wanted to be a bit draconian they could make the failure to file the campaign reports a misdemeanor. Then, Article III, Section 2 of the R.I.Constitution would kick into play. Anyone convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor with a jail sentence of 6 months or more, even if suspended, would be disqualified to run for office.
Long time Rhode Islanders will recall that then Mayor Vincent Cianci was convicted of the felony of assault with a dangerous weapon on April 23, 1984 and received a suspended sentence of 5 years. He resigned from office. He then turned around and announced his candidacy for the vacant post. Melvyn Gelch, a qualified voter in Providence, challenged his right to run for office. After being rebuffed by 2 panels below, Dr. Gelch brought the case to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The high court ruled that Mr. Cianci had forfeited his office and could not run for the seat he made vacant. The court noted that nor could he do so either under the City of Providence Charter or Rhode Island law and that the legislature has the right to make reasonable requirements as a condition precedent for eligibility for an office.
While some may try to derail the governor’s proposals on spurious constitutional claims, I am confident that passage won’t run afoul of RI’s Constitution. What’s more, Patrick T. Conley doesn’t think so either, and there couldn’t be a better legal opinion.
Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.