Ethics complaint filed over EP senator’s gig at teachers union

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Republican Party’s former chairman has filed an ethics complaint against a state senator, arguing her position as a union executive made it a conflict of interest for her to vote on the controversial continuing-contracts bill last week.

Brandon Bell, who is now the state GOP’s special counsel, announced the complaint against state Sen. Valerie Lawson, D-East Providence, on Monday. Bell cited a 2016 amendment to the state constitution which restored the power of the Ethics Commission to police lawmakers’ Assembly votes. 

“The Ethics Commission should exercise this authority over Senator Lawson,” Bell said. “If it does not, then it will send a message that in Rhode Island, a legislator can sponsor, advocate and vote for legislation lobbied by a business associate of the legislator that will benefit a business that is paying the legislator.”

At issue is a union-backed bill, now passed by both chambers, which would keep the terms of municipal contracts in force after they expire if a new agreement has not been reached. Supporters say the bill reflects longstanding practice and protects workers, but opponents argue it will make it harder to get unions to agree to concessions.

Lawson, a freshman senator and a teacher, serves as vice president of the National Education Association Rhode Island union, or NEARI. She and her allies have pointed to the commission’s previous advisory opinion allowing state Sen. Frank Ciccone, a Democrat who works for the Laborers’ union, to vote on union legislation and serve as Senate Labor Committee chair.

In a statement, Lawson said she “sought and received guidance from staff at the Ethics Commission” before voting on the contracts bill. “Additionally, the Senate’s attorney followed up with Ethics Commission to confirm my understanding of the discharge of my legislative responsibilities as it relates to this legislation,” she said. “I followed the guidance that was provided.”

Jason Gramitt, the Ethics Commission’s executive director, confirmed that Lawson called his staff.

“We receive several such calls each day from public officials and employees seeking informal guidance as to the Code of Ethics,” Gramitt said in an email. “In each instance, the caller is reminded that a phone call is merely an informal discussion, and that only the Ethics Commission sitting as a body is authorized to give a binding advisory opinion.”

Robert Walsh, the union’s executive director, said in a statement that the issue in question “was so clear-cut that neither the Ethics Commission staff nor Senate legal staff felt that she needed an opinion in writing.” He said Lawson is covered by what is known as a class exemption, under which lawmakers can vote on bills affecting them personally if they affect a large class of individuals.

Walsh also noted that Lawson recused herself from a hearing where NEARI lobbyist Patrick Cowley testified because he could be considered her “business associate.” But Bell questioned why Lawson still voted for the bill in committee when she had recused herself from part of the testimony on it.

Walsh suggested a ruling against Lawson by the Ethics Commission could have far-reaching effects at the State House. “Should the GOP efforts to change the existing rules prevail, one can question if anyone can serve in our part-time General Assembly,” he said.

Bell’s response: “We’re not asking to change the rules, we’re just asking for union leadership to follow the rules and stop voting for bills that financially benefit their organization.”

Bell’s complaint was released the same day NEARI announced it was going on the air with a 60-second TV commercial defending its work and its members, timed to coincide with Teacher Appreciation Week. A spokesperson said the local union had received a $100,000 media grant from its national organization to pay for the advertising.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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