PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Rhode Island Senate is trying to determine what to do if lawmakers want to discipline a member in the future, after the legislative body moved to expel a senator for the first time since the state’s constitution took effect in 1843.
The question arose when Republican Senate Minority Whip Nicholas Kettle was charged with extorting sex from a page in February. Democratic Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Republican Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere called on Kettle to resign, which he did not immediately do.
The Senate leadership then introduced legislation to expel Kettle, and he resigned one day later. The state’s constitution allows for the Senate or House to expel a member with a two-thirds majority vote, but it doesn’t say how to go about doing so.
Ruggerio asked Brenda Erickson, program president for the National Conference of State Legislatures, to speak with the Senate Rules, Government Ethics and Oversight Committee on Wednesday about how the process works in other states.
“Over the course of the process, it became clear that we don’t have Senate rules in place regarding these kinds of proceedings,” said Greg Pare, a spokesman for Ruggerio.
Pare said the Senate hopes to adopt new rules this term.
Kettle, 27, has denied any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty to charges of extortion and video voyeurism. At the time of his resignation, he said the Senate leaders “do not appear to understand the importance of due process as a cornerstone of our legal system.”
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, a government reform advocacy organization, praised Wednesday’s scheduled meeting. He said the Kettle scandal showed the legislature isn’t currently equipped to investigate and handle complaints against lawmakers.
“They don’t have a process in place, nor does the House, for having a hearing about a complaint against a sitting senator,” Marion said.
He said the need for a transparent disciplinary procedure is twofold: Lawmakers have discovered they have the power to expel members and could abuse that power in the future, and “this is inevitably going to happen again,” he said.
Larry Berman, a spokesman for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, said the House revises its rules at the beginning of every legislative session. He said the speaker has no plans to review its disciplinary rules before the next session.