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Common Cause: After Kettle situation, Senate and House should set process for expelling members

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — With the imminent and unprecedented expulsion of a sitting senator avoided Thursday by that senator’s resignation, a local watchdog group is urging Rhode Island lawmakers to come up with a set of rules for the process moving forward.

Senator Nicholas Kettle submitted a resignation letter Thursday amid criminal allegations of video voyeurism and extortion. Senate leaders had filed legislation to expel him on Wednesday, after calling for his resignation since his arrest late last week.

The Rhode Island constitution allows the Senate and House to expel members with a two-thirds majority, but the article has never been used in recorded state history.

“This situation could happen again,” said John Marion, the executive director of good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island. “They need to be prepared for the next time.”

The constitution is broad, giving each chamber the power to punish its own, and “with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member; but not a second time for the same cause.” The 175-year-old document is silent on how lawmakers should go about expelling a member, or what sort of behavior is worthy of the punishment.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio first mentioned expulsion on Monday, after a grand jury indictment was unsealed charging Kettle with allegedly extorting a Senate page for sex back in 2011. On Wednesday, after Kettle had still not resigned, Senate leadership filed legislation to expel him from the chamber, setting a hearing on the matter for Tuesday. Kettle was told he would be able to defend himself.

“What we discovered is they were sort of making up the process as they went along,” Marion said in an interview Thursday. “It’s clear they hadn’t thought about how they were going to come to a conclusion about the standard that they have to apply.”

The legislation detailed a list of “bad behavior” including campaign finance violations, in addition to the criminal charges against Kettle. Other lawmakers in the House are currently subject to campaign finance violations, Marion mentioned, and have not been punished by their chamber.

Marion said other state legislatures have a special committee to investigate alleged misconduct and produce a public report recommending for or against expelling a member.

“If you have a good process, a transparent process in place, then people aren’t going to raise those questions like they did this time.”

Some of those questions came from the ACLU of Rhode Island, which sent a letter to Ruggerio on Tuesday expressing alarm about the apparent speed in which leadership was considering expulsion.

“As serious as the criminal charges are, so too is the act of expelling a democratically elected legislator from the seat he earned from the voters of his district,” executive director Steven Brown wrote in the letter.

Lawmakers expressed concerns about the safety of the current student pages as part of their explanation for the quick expulsion proceedings.

Ruggerio said Thursday Kettle’s decision to resign was “in the best interest of the Senate and the state.”

“I am grateful that Mr. Kettle has chosen a path that avoids requiring his colleagues to consider expulsion,” Ruggerio said in a statement.

Kettle has denied the charges against him, and his attorney Priscilla DiMaio said Thursday he was resigning in order to focus on his criminal defense, not because of the pending expulsion proceedings.

In his resignation letter, Kettle said: “I am extremely disappointed in Senate Leadership on both sides of the aisle because Mr. Algiere and Mr. Ruggerio do not appear to understand the importance of due process as a cornerstone of our legal system.”