If you're going to fight corruption, you might as well go to work where there's plenty of it. Philip West did that 16 years ago in Rhode Island, perhaps the state with the most ethically challenged political system in America. Against all odds and without holding any public office, he has made significant progress.
The crucial test will come in November, when the electorate votes on a constitutional amendment to ban legislators from executive branch positions--creating the first true separation of powers in the state's history. If the amendment passes, as seems all but certain, West will have won the most important victory of his career.
West arrived in Providence in 1988 and became head of the state's chapter of Common Cause. He hadn't trained for the job--he was a Methodist minister--but he had just relocated and was out of work. He has been in the reform business full time ever since.
And Rhode Island, despite its reputation, has proven receptive to his efforts. Throughout most of the country, Common Cause has declined in visibility and effectiveness, unable to match the enthusiasm it generated in its early years. Thanks in large part to West, Rhode Island is the one dramatic exception.
"There is a remarkably persistent reform community in Rhode Island, and Phil and Common Cause are very much at the forefront of it," says Marty Healey, former director of the state ethics commission. "Their level of effectiveness is unmatched in other states."
West's first major victory came on an ethics complaint he filed in 1989 against then-Governor Edward DiPrete, which led to a large fine and, indirectly, a criminal investigation and DiPrete's guilty plea to 18 counts of bribery, extortion and racketeering. But despite a few high-profile cases of that sort, the 62-year-old West has generally had little stomach for political scalp-collecting. He has tried to pursue what might be called a "deterrent" approach to the crimes of officeholders, seeking not so much retribution but systematic overhaul.
Over the years, West has worked with any friendly legislator he could find to take advantage of recurring scandals, and the resulting public anger, to change the rules. During the early 1990s, two consecutive chief justices of the state Supreme Court resigned under ethical clouds. West helped push for merit selection of all state judges, and Rhode Island became the only state to adopt such a system during the 1990s.
The past decade has seen enactment of other reform legislation, including tougher campaign finance and ethics rules. But the major battle has been over separation of powers. Boards and commissions are a powerful force in Rhode Island, with authority over universities, pensions and huge public works projects. Traditionally, legislators have dominated them.
Currently, legislators occupy or control more than 200 seats on 73 boards and commissions. Their influence over state policy--and their ability to award lucrative contracts--has been what West calls "the deep root" of Rhode Island's corruption, with concentrated power and few checks and balances. The November ballot measure would prohibit legislators from serving on state boards and commissions, or appointing others to do so.
West is under no illusions that the scandals will end soon. A former state Senate president and a former committee chairman are under investigation right now; the House majority leader recently paid a $10,000 fine to settle conflict of interest charges. But West thinks the state's increased willingness to take corruption seriously will have a cleansing effect. "People have begun to believe that scandals might occur," he says, "but that prosecution might follow. Once that happens, public officials might be less likely to engage in some of these practices."