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Complaints and Enforcement

Any person may submit a signed, notarized complaint on a form provided by the Commission. The complaint must name the individual alleged to have violated the Code of Ethics (the "respondent"), identify the respondent's public office, and detail the specific acts which allegedly violate the Code of Ethics. The Commission also may initiate its own investigations based on information received indicating a possible violation of the Code.

Prior Decisions & Orders following adjudications and Settlements/Orders issued by the Ethics Commission regarding Complaint Matters from 1998 to the present are available on the Commission's web site; older documents are available by contacting the Commission at (401) 222-3790.

Filing a Complaint

Prior to filing a complaint, potential Complainants are encouraged to contact the Commission at any time by telephone at 222-3790 to speak with a member of the Investigative Staff during Commission office hours, 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Those contemplating filing a complaint may also arrange to come in during office hours and discuss with Investigative Staff the procedure, the substance of the potential complaint, or any other questions they might have before actually filing a complaint. While those considering filing a complaint are encouraged to contact Commission Staff first, it is not mandatory to do so prior to the actual filing of a complaint. Complaints must be filed on a proper complaint form; forms are available to the public at the Commission Offices during regular office hours.

How the Complaint Process Works

Within three working days of the receipt of any properly filed complaint, the Commission mails copies of the complaint, the Code of Ethics, and Commission regulations to the complainant and the respondent. The Commission thereafter sends timely notices of subsequent Commission actions to the complainant and respondent.

Initial Determination

At this first stage of review, the Commission determines whether the complaint properly alleges facts sufficient to constitute a violation of the law. Meeting in closed executive session, the Commission either decides to dismiss the complaint or to initiate an investigation. The decision to investigate does not address the validity of the complaint; rather, it merely indicates that the allegations properly fall under the provisions of the Code of Ethics. Neither the complainant nor the respondent participates in the initial determination.

Informal Resolution and Settlement

At any time subsequent to an Initial Determination of the Complaint, the Prosecution and the Respondent may seek an informal disposition through an agreed settlement, consent order, or other informal resolution of the pending Complaint. This may entail the parties meeting for an informal conference to seek such informal disposition. The informal conference shall not be used as evidence in any subsequent proceeding. Any informal disposition of a pending Complaint shall be subject to the approval of the Commission. Once approved by the Commission, the Informal Resolution and Settlement Agreement and any Orders issuing regarding the Complaint become public documents.

Investigation

The Commission may issue subpoenas to compel the production of evidence or the attendance of witnesses. Staff Investigators may take oral or written evidence under oath or affirmation. An investigation must be completed within 180 days after the complaint is filed, unless the Commission approves an extension for good cause, with a maximum of two such 60-day extensions. Investigative Reports compiled by staff become public records after a probable cause hearing has been completed.

Probable Cause Hearing

The respondent is mailed a copy of the Investigative Report at least 14 days prior to a scheduled hearing. At the hearing, the prosecution presents the results of the investigation. The Commission reviews the Investigative Report of the prosecution as well as any answer or other information submitted by the respondent. The meeting is closed to the public, but the respondent, respondent's counsel, and the complainant may be present. The Commission may then vote to dismiss the complaint for lack of evidence, or find that probable cause exists to support the allegations and/or amend the complaint if the investigation reveals probable cause exists to believe that other violations of the Code of Ethics have occurred.

Adjudicative Hearing

If the Commission finds that probable cause exists to support the allegations, an adjudicative hearing is scheduled, with at least 15 days prior notice to the respondent. This is an adversarial hearing. The prosecutor and the respondent may present evidence and examine witnesses. Additionally, Commissioners may question witnesses. Rules of evidence are followed, regulations provide for discovery, and principles of due process govern all procedures. A stenographic record is kept and the hearing is conducted in an open and public session.

Final Disposition

The Commission meets in closed session to deliberate and determine whether there has been a knowing and willful violation of the Code of Ethics. Upon a finding of violation, the Commission may: (a) issue a cease and desist order; (b) require the respondent to file any statement mandated by the Ethics Code; (c) impose a civil fine of up to $25,000 per violation and the return of any unjust enrichment; (d) or, for egregious violations, remove from office any official not subject to impeachment.

Fines and Enforcement

The Ethics Commission is empowered, pursuant to the Rhode Island Constitution, Article III, § 8, with the "authority to investigate violations of the code of ethics and to impose penalties, as provided by law . . . ." Additionally, Commission Regulation 1020 as to "Enforcement" states that the Commission may, upon a finding that there has been a violation of the Code of Ethics, issue an order that, among other things, may "require such violator to pay a civil penalty of not more than twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000.00) for each such violation of the Code of Ethics and the pecuniary value of any unjust enrichment realized by the violator as the result of his or her violation of the Code of Ethics . . . ." The imposition of such penalty may accrue either through the completion of an adjudicatory proceeding and subsequent penalty imposed on the violator by the Commission or by way of an agreed upon Informal Resolution and Settlement between the parties, which has been approved by the Commission. Fines collected by the Commission are thereafter deposited in the State of Rhode Island General Fund. Violators subject to a penalty may further be subject to collection action in instances of failure to timely pay.

Whistleblower Protection

Complainants and witnesses have rights under the Rhode Island Whistleblower Act, R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 28-50-1 to 28-50-9 and may also bring a civil action in Superior Court within three years after being threatened or intimidated in any proceeding before the Ethics Commission.

Frivolous Complaints

The Code of Ethics provides that "no person shall knowingly and willfully make a false or frivolous complaint under this chapter." R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(k).

Review

All Final Orders of the Commission are subject to review by the Rhode Island Superior and Supreme Courts pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act.

For more information see: R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-12 to § 36-14-15 and R.I. Ethics Commission Regulations 1000 to 1023 or call the Commission at 401-222-3790.