Commission finds ethics code doesn't stop lawmaker from forming law partnership with lobbyists

State ethics rules don't prohibit a state representative from forming a law firm with two other attorneys who are registered legislative lobbyists, the Rhode Island Ethics Commission found on Tuesday.

Democratic Rep. Daniel McKiernan, a freshman lawmaker from Providence, had asked the commission for an advisory opinion.

The ethics code generally allows public officials to enter into most private business associations, said Jason Gramitt, a staff attorney for the commission.

But once they do, the code acts to regulate that relationship by requiring them to not participate in matters that would financially affect the business, Gramitt added.

But Chairman Ross Cheit told McKiernan they couldn't advise him to recuse himself when his new partners lobby; the commission lost its jurisdiction over the General Assembly following a 2009 state Supreme Court decision.

The court found the state Constitution's speech in debate clause protects General Assembly members from prosecution by the ethics commission.

"I appreciate that you came here and everything about your intentions," Cheit said. "But you can see now how hamstrung we are over issues that I think are of real importance."

McKiernan, a self-employed civil litigator, said he'll voluntarily recuse himself. He was not assigned, at his request, to the committees he expects his law partners to appear before, and said he won't vote on bills for which they lobby.

The General Assembly is considering proposals to restore the commission's jurisdiction over the legislature if voters approve.

Commissioner Timothy Murphy questioned whether the lobbyists may have a perceived advantage when recruiting new clients because they're associated with a lawmaker.

McKiernan said his partners, Patrick Quinlan and Christy Durant, are ethical and won't portray it that way. He began planning to work with Quinlan before he was elected, he added.

Cheit said even if McKiernan was working with unethical people, there's nothing the commission could do about it at this point.

McKiernan said he'd hold himself to a higher standard.

"Although the Supreme Court says the Ethics Commission can't comment, I think it's commonsense," McKiernan said after the meeting. "If there's an appearance of impropriety, if we go up there and do that sort of thing, people lose faith in the system and that's not why I ran."