Yeah, our state legislators have been caught trading clout for cash. Again. Try not to be so surprised.
This time, the offender was none other than State Senate President Joseph Montalbano. The Rhode Island Ethics Commission has decided that there is cause to pursue eight charges of "knowing and willful ethics violations" against the Democrat from North Providence, ranging from fraudulent financial disclosures, failing to file paperwork documenting a conflict of interest, and participating in votes where he clearly had an undisclosed conflict of interest with a party that stood to gain from his vote - to say nothing of benefiting from his considerable political influence.
Montalbano does not deny the essence of the charges. He admits to collecting nearly $90,000 from the town of West Warwick for legal services assisting the town clear land for the proposed Narragansett Indian casino. He also admits that he failed to disclose this income as required by state ethics laws.
Then, while still collecting money from the town, he failed to disclose his conflict of interest while serving on the State Senate's "Committee on Constitutional and Gaming Issues", where he passed a bill to put a put the casino question on the 2006 ballot to the full Senate for a vote. Naturally, once the bill made it to the Senate, he voted in favor it as well - failing all the while to disclose his financial conflict of interest that would have shown his financial stake in the outcome.
Montalbano's lawyer, Max Wistow, says his client's failure to file financial disclosure papers was "inadvertent", and denies that his client will make a deal. However, things apparently got testy, and Wistow was heard shouting at the ethics commissioners through closed doors - an action that drew a rebuke from Ethics Commission chairman James Lynch, who told Wistow that "I hope when you come back you have a better attitude. You have been discourteous to the members of this commission - especially me."
Montalbano's egregious influence peddling is news to snooze by in Rhode Island, accustomed as we are to public corruption. The only state institution that we really trust is the Rhode Island State Police. So even when a leader with as much influence as Montalbano gets busted, we're outraged for a minute before re-electing him into perpetuity. Even if the ethics charges lead to criminal proceedings, it's a safe bet that an influential Democratic incumbent will be re-elected until he's old and grey unless he goes to jail.
So is the solution to pay our state lawmakers more money? At present, Rhode Island's part time legislators are the third worst paid lawmakers in the nation, which definitely provides temptation to sell their political influence. Or how about putting some teeth into state ethics laws? Or telling our State Attorney Generals to get serious about pursuing political corruption before they decide to run for the US Senate? My answer is "all of the above", but I'm certainly open to any other ideas.
UPDATE: No discussion of political corruption would be complete without my mentioning that Dictators of the World has been lovingly, nay, decadently, updated.