By John Marion
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The news came because of tips and leaks: third parties are picking up the tab for legislators’ junkets.
First it was Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio going to Buenos Aires in the fall of 2011 on a junket paid for by a group called the Senate President’s Forum (and missing a key bill introduction because his return flight was delayed by a volcanic eruption).
Then it was the national controversy over the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) flying state representatives to conferences and providing them with “scholarships.”
The question became, how many of these trips are Rhode Island politicians and policy makers taking, and who is paying for them? As a leading group working on government transparency, Common Cause Rhode Island decided to find out.
In May 2012 we asked the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, a body that has jurisdiction over financial disclosure, to create a rule requiring the information be made public.
Rhode Island uniquely has an Ethics Commission with legislative authority. Created by a 1986 Constitutional Convention, the Commission has the authority to substantively alter the Code of Ethics. The governor and legislative leaders appoint the nine-member body jointly.
Common Cause did extensive research on similar travel disclosure provisions in other jurisdictions. While, to the best of our research, no other New England state has such a requirement, 15 states do require some form of travel disclosure. We also discovered that questions about travel by public officials has been an ongoing area of interest for the media and public in Rhode Island for decades.
The language of the rule emerged over a series of public meetings and in its final form requires disclosure of any out-of-state travel and related expenses over $250 in value as long as it is given only because recipient is a public official. Dozens of Rhode Islanders wrote to the commission in support of the rule, and not a single public official (or member of the public) spoke against the spirit of the rule. On Nov. 20 the commission unanimously passed the rule, bringing a little more sunshine for the people of Rhode Island.
Ultimately the new rule, which will first be tested when financial disclosure forms are sent out in April 2013, may not tell us everything we want to know. The underlying money behind organizations providing the travel, many of who may be allowed to legally keep their donors and members secret, will not be revealed.
The national debate over the role of anonymously funded 501(c) organizations in our politics will continue. Nonetheless, we hope peeling back at least one layer of the onion that is influencing our democracy is a first step toward holding power accountable.
John Marion is executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.