Bill would give Fox, Paiva Weed unilateral subpoena powerMay 24th, 2011 at 2:34 pm by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes
Should House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed be allowed to issue subpoenas unilaterally? They could under the terms of a bill the Senate Finance Committee considered last week.
The legislation – S 600 [pdf] – would establish a performance audit division within the Office of the Auditor General, which is the General Assembly’s investigative arm. Buried in the bill is this intriguing provision (emphasis mine):
The speaker of the house or the president of the senate may at any time, without regard to whether the legislature is then in session or out of session, take under investigation any matter within the scope of a performance audit requested under the provisions of this section either completed or then being conducted by the auditor general, and in connection with that investigation may exercise the powers of subpoena vested by law in a standing committee of the legislature.
Fox and Paiva Weed could only issue subpoenas related to audits of state agencies, but that would still be a significant change from current law, which requires a majority vote of a House or Senate committee – and then the approval of the chamber’s leader – to issue witness subpoenas, evidence subpoenas and document requests.
Common Cause Rhode Island’s John Marion said that by giving subpoena power to a single individual, the bill – sponsored by Sen. James Sheehan, Democrat of Narragansett – raises the potential for an abuse of power.
“This is a clear overreach on the part of the sponsor to give the legislature – and the leadership specifically – unfettered power over the other branches of government,” Marion said. “Every citizen should be afraid of the lack of checks and balances in this bill. It doesn’t even require the entire Joint Committee on Legislative Services to approve the subpoena – it just gives to it one individual.”
Paiva Weed declined to defend the bill in a brief statement her spokesman issued to WPRI.com last week, instead offering a rather basic overview of the lawmaking process.
“The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing for this afternoon on Senator Sheehan’s legislation to create a performance audit division within the auditor general’s office,” the Senate president said. “The committee process is central to appropriate diligence around this and all pieces of legislation pending in the Senate.”
The Finance Committee held the bill for further study last Thursday, according to the General Assembly’s website.