They're Mad and They're Not Going To Take It Anymore

FED up with excessive corruption in Rhode Island's state government, a coalition of 13 statewide groups have announced plans to launch a sweeping ethics and campaign reform effort.Called RIght Now!, the coalition brings together churches, environmental organizations, businesses, and legal, education, and public-interest groups. Representatives from each sector met at the Statehouse in Providence Wednesday to state their goal of restoring sagging public confidence in state government. "Rhode Island can't turn the clock back, but we can make it right for the future," said Alan Hassenfeld, president and chief executive officer of Hasbro Inc., who serves as chairman of RIght Now! "We cannot wait any longer." Many people here say that particularly during the past year this tiny New England state of about 1 million people has lived up to an infamous nickname: Rogues Island. Problems started snowballing in January, when Gov. Bruce Sundlun (D) ordered 45 banks and credit unions to close after the private insurance fund that insured their deposits collapsed. About 300,000 Rhode Islanders had money invested with the institutions, which were required to obtain Federal Deposit insurance. Since then, most of the banks and credit unions have reopened, but the event touched off a controversy when it was revealed in televised hearings that a number of public officials were able to wi thdraw their money just days before the crisis. Other political scandals have also wracked the state. They have ranged from a mayor who was indicted for extortion to lawyers who were suspended on charges of lending money to a judge before whom they had argued cases. "It's a small state, so there are better opportunities for the kind of incestuous networking that occurs," explains Frederick Massie, communications director for Save the Bay, an environmental group that is a member of the coalition. A recent survey by the Becker Institute, a polling firm in Sudbury, Mass., found that of 800 Rhode Islanders polled, 98 percent were angry about the year's events; 82 percent noted political corruption as a serious problem, up from 35 percent two years ago; and 40 percent would like to leave the state. "It's been a wild and crazy time," says Eleanor Denice, a senior citizen who has been demonstrating at the Statehouse since January because she has money tied up in one of the eight financial institutions that has not reopened. "We no longer have any faith in our politicians." Although Governor Sundlun and other legislators have already filed legislation that would amend campaign finance and ethics laws, RIght Now! says more needs to be done. The group has unveiled a package of stricter reforms that it plans to introduce as legislation in 1992. The coalition is targeting three areas: Campaign finance. Campaigns in Rhode Island cost too much and need to be stringently controlled, says Phil West, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island and co-chairman of RIght Now! The group is proposing a ban on corporate contributions, prohibiting the personal use of campaign funds, and outlawing honorariums to elected officials. Ethics. RIght Now! wants to bar elected state officials from taking state jobs, including judgeships, for at least one year after leaving office. "The time has come to close the revolving door," Mr. West says. "Dozens of legislators have moved directly from their seats to the bench or to well-paid permanent state jobs," he says. "A one-year ban will help establish the separation of powers." Term extensions. The coalition would extend the terms for general officers from two years to four, with strong recall provisions. With two-year terms "what we are saying is you ... must produce some flashy results in a hurry," but after 12 months in office you will have to start raising money for the next campaign, West says. Only two other states - New Hampshire and Vermont - retain two-year terms for general officers.

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