The Ethics Commission, which was designed to be one of the strongest of its kind in the nation, is something of a story in itself. Five years ago, it was in the midst of a meltdown, because of a lack of institutional support. Due to increased funding — reflecting support from both the governor and the legislature — staffing for the agency has climbed, from four to 12; its case backlog has dropped, from more than 100 cases to about 15; and compliance with its financial disclosure system has grown, from 55 percent to more than 90 percent, according to executive director Kent Willever.

There’s also reason to question what has emerged as the most memorable line from Celona’s US District Court testimony — in which he said that former representative Vincent Mesolella boasted to have never voted on the merits of a bill in 16 years, and wasn’t about to start.

If the remark really was made, “I suspect it was in jest, as normal legislative banter, the way people in offices or a university would banter with one another, saying slightly exaggerated or inappropriate things,” Moakley says. Yet Celona’s recitation of the remark “only feeds into the [legislative] stereotype, and that’s unfortunate, and does a disservice to a lot of hardworking legislators.”

You get what you pay for
As the Roger Williams’ case grinds on in US District Court, gubernatorial combatants Carcieri and Fogarty are trying to work the ethics issue to their benefit.

While there’s some merit in each candidate’s package, both candidates seem to be excessively tapping the ethics card since it plays well with voters. As Moakley says, “They’re trying to out-ethics one another when they might want to talk about other substantive issues that we face.”

Meanwhile, despite the relative heights to which he soared, former state senator John Celona seems a decidedly minor character, particularly when compared with power brokers in the private sector. Yet despite this, Americans tend to embrace even those businesses (Wal-Mart) and businessmen (former General Electric chieftain Jack “Neutron Jack” Welch) that have an adverse effect on American workers. It calls to mind a remark by Calvin Coolidge — that the business of America is business — and how Americans hate politics.

Little surprise, then, that it went nowhere fast when House Speaker William J. Murphy in January floated the idea of a full-time legislature, as a remedy for some of the conflicts that take place with a part-time General Assembly.

Never mind that Rhode Island’s legislature is among the lowest-paid nation. Or how, without excusing Celona’s behavior, an analogy might be drawn between his opportunistic graft and the way in which Mexican police officers are tacitly expected to supplement their meager wages with the bribes known as morditas (“little bites”).

Still, if apathetic and ignorant Americans generally refuse to acknowledge responsibility for their own disengagement from politics, they also favor third-rate politicians, rather than more powerful private interests, when seizing upon a convenient whipping boy.

Email the authors
Ian Donnis: idonnis@phx.com

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