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R.I. Ethics Commission, known for transparency, talks about keeping complaints secret until investigations done

Rhode Island lawmakers in the House of Representatives deliberate on the floor of the House Chamber during a legislative session Wednesday, June 15, 2016, at the Statehouse.
Rhode Island lawmakers in the House of Representatives deliberate on the floor of the House Chamber during a legislative session Wednesday, June 15, 2016, at the Statehouse.Steven Senne

PROVIDENCE -- Rhode Island has one of the most transparent ethics agencies in the nation, but this week a member of the state Ethics Commission floated an idea that would limit transparency by keeping ethics complaints under wraps until investigations are complete.

Dr. Robert Salk, who has been on the Ethics Commission since 2012, raised the idea during a meeting Tuesday.

“My suggestion is that when we decide to go ahead and investigate a complaint, that we don’t publicly state who we’re investigating, because we don’t know the data yet,” Salk said in video of the meeting recorded by Uprise RI reporter Steve Ahlquist.

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Ethics complaints can be used as a “political tool,” Salk said. “The problem is that the way we do it is hurting people that did nothing wrong,” he said.

The commission’s executive director, Jason Gramitt, noted the commission has been recognized for its transparency. According to a September 2019 analysis of ethics agencies by the Coalition for Integrity, Rhode Island is one of four states with a perfect transparency score of 100 -- along with Minnesota, Florida, and Colorado.

When it began in 1986, the state Ethics Commission used a “secret process,” Grammit said, but after court cases, hearings and workshops, the commission opened up the complaint process.

“To bring it back to the late ‘80s situation of transparency, honestly, I think it would be impossible to do,” he said. “The commission needs to be fully prepared for the fact that (Salk’s idea) will be extremely unpopular because it will be viewed as a reversal of transparency.”

Plus, Gramitt said, there is no way to stop someone who files an ethics complaint from going to the press and saying, “Here’s a copy of the complaint that I just filed today against this person.”

Some commission members seemed open to Salk’s idea. Commissioner Kyle P. Palumbo said, “I think what we’re saying is, it’s not that (complaints) would never be disclosed, it’s just after the end of an investigation, (we’d say) a complaint was filed, here it is, and here’s what we found.”

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But Marissa A. Quinn -- who was elected as the commission’s new chair on Tuesday, replacing Ross E. Cheit -- said, “I don’t know. I’m worried about backing off transparency.”

This is not the first time Ethics Commission members have expressed concern about complaints being used as political weapons. In 2016, the Ethics Commission voted to bar people from filing complaints 90 days before a general election, though the commission can still initiate complaints.

In an interview, John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said ethics agencies must decide how to balance the privacy of the accused and the public interest in knowing about the process. “For very good historical reasons, Rhode Island has chosen to weigh the public interest greater than the privacy interest,” he said.

In the 1970s, the precursor to the Ethics Commission was much more secretive, and people could face penalties if they revealed ethics complaints too soon, Marion said. That system “really chilled complaints,” he said, so the public demanded a more transparent system, he said.

“Obviously, Common Cause thinks that is a good thing,” he said. “We would fight any attempt to roll back the transparency.”

The current level of transparency allows the public to gauge whether the Ethics Commission is handling complaints properly, Marion said. For example, he noted the commission is now investigating a complaint filed against Governor Gina M. Raimondo over a proposed no-bid, 20-year, $1 billion extension of IGT’s Rhode Island lottery contract.

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“If it were a secret process, the public couldn't have faith that they treated the governor’s complaint seriously,” he said.

In an interview, Salk noted that in deciding whether to investigate an ethics complaint for a potential violation, the commission must assume that all of the facts alleged are true. But at that point, he noted, the commission has not reached a conclusion about the veracity of the facts presented, he said.

“We have had instances of investigations where we decided a person complained about did nothing wrong,” Salk said. “But the person's name was in the paper. I don’t think that’s fair.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, Salk suggested another idea: Having Gramitt make clear in public statements that the commission’s decision to investigate a complaint does not mean it accepts or rejects the validity of that complaint.

Gramitt said he makes that point every time he speaks to a reporter about a complaint, “and they generally print something like that.” Commission members talked about making such a statement when complaints are first disclosed at commission meetings.

In an interview, Gramitt said the commission reached no decision about the matter during Tuesday’s meeting, and no formal proposal has been made. The commission’s next meeting is Jan. 28.

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com