House Dems nullify vote on ethics bill, arguing rules require it

March 13th, 2013 at 8:00 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

• Update: Common Cause blasts House Dems over ethics nullification (March 14)


House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Edie Ajello didn’t know what she was doing Tuesday when she voted with her colleagues to pass a proposed constitutional amendment reinstating the power of the R.I. Ethics Commission to police state lawmakers’ actions.

That’s how lawyers for House Democratic leadership kicked off their explanation for why Ajello nullified the vote on Wednesday afternoon when her committee reconvened.

The lawyers say Tuesday night’s surprise vote – which was orchestrated by rebel Democratic Rep. Patrick O’Neill – wasn’t allowed under the House rules [pdf] but Ajello didn’t realize that, so she voted along with the rest of the committee to pass the bill. “They did it in error,” House spokesman Larry Berman told WPRI.com.

Richard Raspallo, legal counsel to House Majority Leader Nick Mattiello, also said the votes taken by the committee Tuesday night will never be posted on the General Assembly’s website because the House rules don’t require committee votes to be recorded there unless the underlying bills are getting a floor vote.

“They’re nullified, so they’ll never be online,” he said.

Raspallo specifically cited Rule 13(c), which states: “The Speaker shall formulate a plan for the publication of committee votes and work to implement the plan so committee votes appear online in a prominent and conspicuous location on the General Assembly website prior to the floor votes of the bill occurring.”

The essence of the lawyers’ explanation for why Tuesday’s vote wasn’t allowed is fairly simple: they say that once a committee votes to hold a bill for further study, the committee is barred from taking any further action on it – even later on during the same hearing – until after a notice is posted for a new hearing.

“Under the rules, once they hold it for further study it has to be re-posted,” Susan Pegden, House Speaker Gordon Fox’s legal counsel, told WPRI.com. She cited Rules 12(e) and 12(f).

Rule 12(f) says a committee member may make a motion to reconsider the committee’s vote on a bill – but it also says it doesn’t apply to bills held for further study, an action that’s defined under Rule 12(e)(v).

“Because the first sentence [of Rule 12(f)] specifically excludes bills held for further study, bills held for further study under the second sentence cannot be the subject of a motion to reconsider,” Raspallo said. “The only way a bill that has been held for further study then gets new consideration – reconsideration – is if it’s re-posted.”

Therefore, they say, the rules didn’t allow O’Neill to ask for another vote on the ethics bill after the earlier one during the hearing that ordered it held for further study. (Confused yet?)

“It never should have been recognized,” Pegden said. Nevertheless it was, and the committee voted in favor of reconsidering their earlier vote and then in favor of passing the bill.

One state lawmaker familiar with the rules was astonished by the argument put forward by Pegden and Raspallo.

“Once we adjourn the committee [for the day] I agree that they have to re-post the bill. I wholly agree with that,” the lawmaker, who asked not to be identified because of the matter’s sensitivity, told WPRI.com. “But you cannot say to me that you can’t reconsider the bill just because it got held [for further study] earlier in the hearing.”

“It happened in a committee just last week,” the lawmaker continued. “And it’s happened before. That doesn’t make any sense. You can reconsider any vote as long as it’s in the same hearing. … It’s happened on multiple occasions, including as recently as last week.”

As for Ajello’s nullification of the ethics bill vote on Wednesday, Pegden said the rules don’t say specifically whether such an action is allowed. “This has never happened before,” she said. However, Pegden said Ajello was allowed to nullify the ethics vote under Rule 11(b), which says in part: “The chair shall determine all questions of procedure before the committee in cases not provided for in these rules.”

“The committee chairs, they are the ultimate authority,” Pegden said.

Raspallo argued that supporters of the ethics bill who are disappointed that its passage out of committee has been nullified are suggesting that “the ends justify the means,” while House leaders are concerned about correct procedure. “The rules matter,” he said.

Pegden acknowledged that there is no way for the sponsor of a bill to get another vote on it once the bill has been held for further study, but suggested they can lobby the chair and members of the committee to convince them to call another hearing and a vote.

“These bills are heavy bills, they’re complicated bills,” Pegden said. “You don’t want to pass something out without thinking it through.”

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island and a longtime proponent of the ethics amendment, issued a statement Wednesday evening expressing grave reservations about what had transpired earlier in the day.

“If the rules of the House of Representatives were tortured to orchestrate this change, then democracy was demeaned, if not denied,” Marion said.

Meanwhile, Speaker Fox quickly sought retribution against O’Neill, the man behind the ethics brouhaha. O’Neill, who was House majority whip until he broke with Fox last fall, was removed from the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday after eight years. Fox reassigned O’Neill to the lower-profile House Committee on Small Business.

“Speaker Fox can remove me from the House Judiciary Committee, but he will never silence or intimidate me,” O’Neill said in a statement Wednesday night, describing the move as a “petty and petulant maneuver” and an “act of political retribution.”

O’Neill also expressed disappointment that his initially successful effort to move the ethics bill out of committee had been reversed. “That effort was overwhelmingly supported by the members of the committee and I look forward to the day that it is debated openly on the floor,” he said.

• Related: Don’t look now, but House Judiciary just passed the ethics bill (March 12)

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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17 Responses to “House Dems nullify vote on ethics bill, arguing rules require it”

  1. anthony sionni says:

    FOX should resign!

  2. Kitty says:

    Rep Ajello is spineless / 90% of these reps cant stand on their own two feet mostly because their leader Fox has them hopping on one foot. What a disgrace.

  3. Pete Bonk says:

    Perhaps Speaker Gordon Fox should replace House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Edie Ajello for not knowing how to properly run a committee. It’s a better reason than the one given for booting Rep. Patrick O’Neill off the committee….

  4. Jenn says:

    Ajello is a POS…….enough said!

  5. Gordon Lies says:

    This is the most ridiculous “justification” ever given. Read the house rules. The first sentence of 12(f) has nothing to do with preventing reconsideration. It merely states that any bill sent out of committee unless it is the budget or a bill held for further study must be placed on the floor calendar within two weeks. That makes sense. Gordon is losing control and is making this stuff up as he goes along. It must kill him that the competent lawmakers are all opposing him and on his side are committee chairs who have no clue what they are doing.

  6. east side rules says:

    Rich Raspallo should read his quotes. It makes no sense. Here you are making up rules as you go along and you claim the other side is saying the ends justify the means. Then why not follow the way itd always worked? Why is Pegden saying the chair has broad discretion in determining the procedures of the committee when there are no rules when there are clearly rules in place you idiots choose not to follow. Can’t wait for this moron Pegden to make off like every speakers lawyer and become as awful a judge as she is a lawyer. Pitiful.

  7. Cosmo says:

    Oh Lord we might as well debate how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Anybody who thinks an ethics bill is going to go anywhere in this sewer, please sell me some of what you’re smoking. WAKE UP FOLKS YOU’RE IN RHODE ISLAND!!

  8. Marc Comtois says:

    As “Gordon Lies” mentioned, the Speaker and his lawyers are using an extremely tortured reading of 12(f) as justification. Here is the entire text of 12(f)”

    “(f) Committee Chairs shall bring reports of committee actions to the floor no later than two (2) weeks following the committee votes thereon, provided that this shall not apply to the Committee on Finance, nor shall it apply to bills being held for further study under subdivision (e)(v). A committee member may move reconsideration of any vote taken so long as the bill or resolution which was the subject of the vote remains in the possession of the committee and that the motion is made by a member voting in the majority. A motion to reconsider in committee shall not be debated.”

    The sentences in 12(f) have nothing to do with each other. Convenient (and probably a little lucky for Speaker Fox). The first sentence explains that ALL committees (except Finance) report on ALL actions except for those they are holding for further study (which makes sense). The second sentence then deals with actions within the committee and the unnamed legislator who spoke to Nesi supports a common-sense interpretation that has been and was followed in this instance.

  9. Marc Comtois says:

    To clarify my last sentence: The common-sense interpretation is that a committee can reconsider and vote on items brought up earlier within the same hearing without having to re-publish, etc.

  10. Ann TFox says:

    Fox will never resign.
    Fox, like his predecessor Murphy are power hungry control freaks. I have said for months and months that term limits would avoid such problems as what happened with O’Neill because Fox would have been gone long ago.
    The people of RI have one recourse-they must demand term limits be passed…and since no lawmaker will do it, then it must be done by referendum.
    When that bill was voted out of committee, it should have been voted on.
    That’s the procedure. Self serving Fox did not follow procedure but llike usual he gets away with it just like he got away with not reporting a fundraising campaign contribution. Fox was also part of 38 studios and the International Institute scam down URI.
    The people of RI need a grasssroots movement to initiate term limits and remove incompetentand/or self serving lawmakers like Edith Ajello,(she is a fool, inept and should be removed as chair but she won’t because Edith is a loyal follower dog of Master Fox) Helio Melo, the architect of the budget and the pension reform law, the other members of the self serving and loyal to Fox leadership– and the rest of the sheeple in the Gen Assembly who are like loyal dogs serving their master, Gordon Fox.
    In fact did Edith Ajello even have the right to nullify an action the rest of the committee voted on, including herself? That’s like saying “Okay, let’s all eat a piece of the pie” and then afterwards, when you found out you weren’t supposed to, you deny that you ate a piece of pie! This is outrageous…
    Term limits will at least cut down on corruption since these lawmakers won’t be in there as career polticians any more!

  11. Govstench says:

    This was shameful politics at it worse. What was noticed was as soon as the Ajello pulled the bill back and stuffed it in the file cabinet, Rep. Lima and Lally left the room. They had no interest in the agenda for the evening – why are they even on that committee? Fox boots O’Neill off the committee? You can bet another puppet will be put in his place!

  12. Noel says:

    Isn’t that a oxymoron…Ethics in politics…they never seem to have any

  13. Matt says:

    Because Speaker Fox was raised where criminal activity is the norm. His sister was arrested on passing counterfit money.

  14. [...] O’Neill, D-Pawtucket, lost his seat on the committee after he caught Chairwoman Edie Ajello off guard and led an effort to pass a proposed constitutional amendment that would restore the power of the R.I. Ethics Commission to police state lawmakers’ actions. Because the bill was originally slated to be held for further study, lawyers for Democratic House leadership argued that it first needs to posted for a new hearing and nullified the vote. [...]

  15. [...] Related: House Dems nullify vote on ethics bill, arguing rules require it (March [...]

  16. [...] Such reasoning is a tad ironic, though, when you consider the majority leader’s own lawyer argued it’s the speaker’s critics who think the ends justify the [...]

  17. [...] majority. A motion to reconsider in committee shall not be debated.” Where was the rule broken? Read what a “source” thinks about the ruling, the same thing OSTPA [...]