August 21, 2007

Joseph Montalbano: Personally Opposed to but Publicly Supporting the Right to Take Bribes

Carroll Andrew Morse

The cases against current Senate President Joseph Montalbano and former Senate President William Irons go before the State Ethics Commission today. Jim Baron has described the charges in the Woonsocket Call

The principal complaint against Irons is that, while receiving commissions from CVS Pharmacies and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island in his private insurance firm, he helped kill legislation opposed by the two companies.

The main Montalbano complaint arises from legal work he did for the town of West Warwick as an attorney in private practice, concerning land abutting the site of the proposed Narragansett Indian casino in that town, while he voted on casino questions in the Senate and in committee.

Senator Montalbano’s defense counsel Max Wistow, last seen arguing that requiring any financial disclosure by elected officials was unconstitutional, has a new strategy for defending his client. Now, Mr. Wistow argues that state legislators have constitutional immunity from laws against bribery, as long as the bribes are specifically intended to buy votes. I kid you not. Here’s the Associated Press' description of the defense (via 7-to-7)…
Montalbano's attorney, Max Wistow, says there was no conflict-of-interest. He also says the state constitution allows General Assembly members to vote however they choose without fearing criminal prosecution or other penalties.
The provision of the state constitution referred to is Article VI, Section 5
Immunities of general assembly members. -- The persons of all members of the general assembly shall be exempt from arrest and their estates from attachment in any civil action, during the session of the general assembly, and two days before the commencement and two days after the termination thereof, and all process served contrary hereto shall be void. For any speech in debate in either house, no member shall be questioned in any other place.
Note that Section 5 is in no way limited to actions by the Ethics Commission, so the Wistow/Montalbano position is that legislators cannot be prosecuted for selling their votes in any court or tribunal in the state of Rhode Island.

Of course, like a good lawyer, Wistow is also arguing, as a matter of fact, that Senator Montalbano didn’t take bribes that he can’t be prosecuted for. This may take a favorite meme of the Democratic party -- “personally opposed but publicly in favor” -- to its boldest heights ever, as Senator Montalbano tells the public that, though he doesn't personally take bribes, he has instructed his legal team to support the right of those who want to take them to be able to do so!

Do you think that "Proudly Pro-Choice on Accepting Bribes" would make a good bumper sticker for the Montalbano campaign in '08? It certainly seems that it would be an accurate one.


The Ethics Commission has rejected the argument that legislators have blanket immunity from the law where their votes are concerned. Bruce Landis of the Projo reports...

The state Ethics Commission yesterday rejected all of state Senate President Joseph Montalbano’s motions to dismiss ethics charges against him, including his claims that the state and federal constitutions protect him from prosecution based on his votes....

[Ethics Commission lawyer Jason Gramitt] said that the1986 amendment [to the RI Constitution] specifically cited “use of position” as something subject to the ethics rules. He asked, rhetorically, what is a more central “use of position” of a legislator than voting on bills?

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Social conservatives of both parties have been propping up this jackal for too long. Let's unite against his tactics of intimidation (re: the primary campaign sign incident) and sleaze and toss this bum out!
Maybe this will give the Democratic Assembly leadership the wakeup call it badly needs.

Posted by: rhody at August 21, 2007 11:04 AM

I think it's time to get a Cafepress store up with Montalbano '08 merchandise up. I'll design the bumper stickers and such once I get home.

Posted by: Greg at August 21, 2007 11:15 AM

Greg, you really need to develop a sarcasm font.

Posted by: Rhody at August 21, 2007 1:58 PM

It's very funny that you said that, as I just said the EXACT thing earlier last week. Something like an italics...

Posted by: Greg at August 21, 2007 2:00 PM

Damn, you were kidding, Greg? I'd buy. How about a piggy bank with Montalbano's face on one side and "Bribes are Constitutional - Give freely" on the other?

(Great post, Andrew.)

Posted by: SusanD at August 21, 2007 3:16 PM

Don't worry Susan. I'll come up with something.

Posted by: Greg at August 21, 2007 3:17 PM

Let's see how just how corrupt Montalbano REALLY is. Have Gil deRamel offer him 20 large and see how he responds.

Posted by: rhody at August 21, 2007 3:34 PM

Too bad Hal Meyer now lives in Idaho -- he was always so good at designing those "sucks sites" ... has a nice sort of ring to it.

Posted by: Will at August 22, 2007 12:50 AM

the arguements by wistow are getting pretty weak there may be a problem here

Posted by: johnpaycheck at August 22, 2007 3:54 AM


I agree. I've been assuming that the worst penalty Montalbano could receive for what he his charged with would be giving the money back and maybe a fine on top of that. Am I wrong here?

Is there something else really damaging that would come out at a trial (but then why isn't the ethics commission, who already has access to all of the prosecution evidence, pursuing more serious charges)?

Or is maybe Wistow on an ego-trip, actively putting the possiblity of "making new law" over the long-term interests of his client?

Or, conversely, is Wistow just being a cold-blooded lawyer and saying he doesn't care how stupid the arguments he makes look in the court of public opinion, as long as there is any possibility at all that they might lead to a dismissal in the court of law? (But if it's either of the situations above, why has Montalbano signed off on the ridicule inducing, but not likely to work arguments?)

Posted by: Andrew at August 22, 2007 11:18 AM

Presumably because he knows he's a goner, Andrew. What the heck, let's challenge everything, including their right to breath. And it worked, for the first round anyway. Not for the second. Thank heavens, the Ethics Commission chose to reclaim their authority (and dignity) with this ruling today.

I shouldn't ask this so publicly but what's the buzz about Montalbano and the feds? Is he one of The Seven or is he a separate crime wave unto himself?

Posted by: SusanD at August 22, 2007 10:08 PM
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