“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it” – Warren Buffett
Hailed by many as among the strongest Ethics Codes and Commissions in the nation, the Rhode Island Ethics Commission itself is violating its own code, with nearly half the commission members serving beyond the expiration of their five-year-terms, with one member exceeding his term by 15 years.
This is a commission with a budget of just $1.3 million and about a dozen employees, according to John Marion, executive director of Common Cause in Rhode Island. It is charged with upholding ethics throughout not only state government, but of every official and employee in each of the state’s 39 cities and towns.
According to the Ethics Commission’s own website, “no commission member may serve more than one full five-year term.” Yet, four of its nine members have exceeded their terms:
- Ross E. Cheit, chairperson, was appointed in 2004 from a list of nominees provided by the Senate Minority Leader. Not only has he exceeded his term, but when he was elected chair in 2011 he was already two years beyond the expiration of his term. Cheit is a professor political science and of international and public affairs at Brown University.
- Robert O. Salk, secretary, was appointed by then Gov. Donald Carcieri in 2012, six years ago. Salk is a physician.
- John D. Lynch, a lawyer, was appointed by the governor from a list provided by the Speaker of the House in 2009, nine years ago. Lynch, a lawyer, is the brother of state Senator Erin Lynch, D-Warwick.
- James V. Murray, a lawyer, was appointed from a list of nominees provided by the House Majority Leader in 1998, twenty years ago.
The remaining members of the commission are Marisa A. Quinn, director of communications and outreach for the Watson Institute of International Studies at Brown University, who was appointed in 2015; M. Therese Antone, chancellor, professor at Salve Regina University, appointed in 2015; J. Douglas Bennett, appointed in 2016; Arianne Corrente, communications and marketing vice president at the Rhode Island Foundation, appointed in 2017; and Timothy P. Murphy, medical director of the Vascular Disease Research Center and also affiliated with Brown University Medical School, appointed in 2015.
Asked if anyone has ever challenged an Ethics Commission decision based upon members serving beyond their term’s expiration, Marion replied: “that’s a great question.”
“We don’t agree that people should be serving on expired terms,” he said, rationalizing, however, that if “people were kicked off the board as soon as their terms expired, and nobody is appointed right away, they might not be able to get a quorum and meet… We need to get new blood on these boards and commissions.”
Marion said the Ethics Commission, like other boards, has “interpreted” that members serve “until they are replaced.”
The Ethics Commission, Marion said, “is one of the last boards” where all members are not appointed by the governor. In 2004 a Separation of Powers Constitutional Amendment was approved, in which the governor was to make appointments to most boards, subject to legislative approval.
The way the Ethics Commission appointments are written, four appointments are made directly by the governor, and one each by the governor from a list of recommendations from the Speaker of the House, Senate President, Senate Minority Leader, House Minority Leader, and House Majority Leader.
Only one of the lapsed appointments is a gubernatorial appointment. The others are nominations by the Senate Minority Leader, Speaker of the House, and House Majority Leader.
While Marion and Common Cause are supportive of the Ethics Commission, Marion said they have raised concerns about board appointments, and the ease with which individuals can file complaints.
“They do not encourage complaints the way we’d like to see,” Marion said. A form is “not on the website. You must go there to get it. Anytime you create friction in the process, you discourage participation.”
He said the commission believes that by not making it easy to file complaints electronically, it limits frivolous complaints.