Kent Willever has taken on a job whose very title sounds to some like an oxymoron: He is the executive director of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. Not only does the state have a long history of corruption in its politics but the agency itself has suffered from apparent conflicts of interest in recent years.

Created in 1986 through a constitutional amendment approved by voters tired of nepotism and bribery in state government, the ethics panel was hampered from the start by a flaw in its basic design. Its members are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders without public hearings or overview. Commissioners are frequently beholden to the very people they are charged with keeping an eye on.

Such appears to be the case, for example, with a pending complaint against state House Speaker John Harwood, accused of representing private companies before state agencies. If the charges were proved, it would be a clear violation of state ethics law. But they can't be proved. Seven of the ethics commission's nine members had to recuse themselves from the case because of personal associations with Harwood. There won't be a quorum until replacements are appointed.

An investigation into several of the ethics commissioners was stymied earlier this year when Willever's predecessor, Martin Healey, was abruptly fired. Healey and most outsiders claim he was dismissed for looking too deeply into conflict-of-interest charges against commissioners who voted to relax a ban on gifts from lobbyists to public officials despite their own ties to lobbyists.

It's not an easy situation for Willever to step into, but much of the Rhode Island political community, and several members of the ethics commission, are counting on him to straighten things out. "We've been shellacked" in the press, admits Richard E. Kirby, the commission's new chairman. "I think that having Kent on board is going to change some perceptions."

It's not the first time Willever has stepped in to clean up a mess of this sort. After teaching ethics in the Navy, he helped the service review its code of ethics in the wake of the Tailhook scandal. He was subsequently appointed to the Navy and Marine Corps' top appellate court, where some of his colleagues on the bench stood accused of bribery and undue influence charges.

In his new job,Willever faces major challenges. Only about two-thirds of Rhode Island officials required to file financial disclosure reports do so, easily among the poorest performances in the country. Last year, the legislature passed a law allowing for penalties to be brought against people who file ethics complaints that are frivolous. The number of complaints dropped from about 90 a year to nearly zero.

Despite public pressure for reforms, Willever serves at the pleasure of the commissioners, many of whom show little sign of being responsive to their credibility problems. "I wasn't given any assurances," Willever says, "not even an assurance that I'd be here very long."

Having spent much of his career in the Navy rather than in the mire of Rhode Island politics, Willever comes in as clean as anyone possibly could. Political observers in Providence think that if anyone can drain the ethical swamp, he can--it's just they doubt that anyone can. "The Ethics Commission in this state is dead as far as I'm concerned," says Sara Quinn, another former executive director. "I find it impossible to believe that anyone with the guts to do the job as necessary is going to have any shelf life at all."