Bill punishing ‘frivolous’ ethics complaints passes Rhode Island House

Wednesday, July 1, 1998

The Rhode Island House passed a bill yesterday that would empower the state Ethics Commission to punish individuals who file “frivolous” ethics complaints against government officials.


The measure, which was first introduced in the Senate, provides that if the commission “finds the complaint to be frivolous, or filed in bad faith the commission shall require the person filing the complaint to pay a civil penalty of not more than five thousand dollars ($5,000), all or part of which may be paid to the subject of the complaint in reimbursement of said subject's reasonable expenses of defense.”


The Senate passed S. 2830 last week. The measure is now before Gov. Lincoln Almond.


Although the measure was passed in both legislative bodies, some members voted against the bill because of First Amendment concerns.


Democratic Sen. Catherine Graziano said: “I have a problem with some of the language in the bill such as 'frivolous' and 'unreasonable.' These terms are subjective and can be interpreted differently by different people.


“By imposing the restriction of an increased fine and requiring the person to possibly pay all legal fees we are opening the door to saying to people—'don't file ethics complaints,'” she said.


“There are no caps in this law for legal fees, which can be enormous. This bill will have a chilling effect on people who honestly believe that there was an ethics violation,” Graziano said. “I don't usually agree with the American Civil Liberties Union [which also opposes the bill] but this time I do.”


Although she voted against the bill, the senator said she understood the impetus behind the bill. “Someone could file an ethics complaint against a public official on the eve of an election which could effect the outcome of the race. This happened not that long ago in our state.”


Almond also has some constitutional concerns with the bill, a governor's spokeswoman said.


Lisa Pelosi, director of communications for the governor, said: “He will make his decision after conducting a close legal review.”


If the governor signs the bill or takes no action on it within 10 days after it passed the House, then the measure becomes law. If the governor vetoes the bill, then both the House and Senate could override the veto only by approving it by a two-thirds majority.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.