‘We are just concerned with protecting the integrity of the Senate and making sure we have a safe working environment for everyone who is employed in the Senate,’ said Senate President Dominick Ruggerio.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — “This is a sad day for the Senate and this is not a pleasurable experience,” Rhode Island Senate President Dominick Ruggerio told The Journal in a State House interview on Wednesday after he set in motion the unprecedented removal of fellow Sen. Nicholas Kettle from his seat.
A North Providence Democrat who has served in the legislature since the early 1980s, Ruggerio said he still hopes that Kettle resigns on his own, while the charges against him wind their way through state court. Kettle, a 27-year-old Coventry Republican, was arrested on Friday and charged with video voyeurism and extorting sex from one of the teenagers working at the State House as a Senate page.
“This is one of those things that you have to do … because you have to do it,” Ruggerio said of the resolution that he and other Democratic and Republican leaders introduced on Wednesday to launch an unprecedented removal proceeding, starting with a public hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee next Tuesday night.
“We are just concerned with protecting the integrity of the Senate and making sure we have a safe working environment for everyone who is employed in the Senate. I have heard from a lot of my colleagues in the Senate and they are supportive of expulsion, whether it is Sen. Kettle or any member who does anything inappropriate or of that nature.”
“I don’t know of any member who would not support expulsion at this time,” he said.
But, “I am hopeful maybe Senator Kettle will think this through and resign before we have to go through this process because, I mean, it’s not going to be a good process for hm. I don’t think it’s going to be a good process for the Senate,” Ruggerio said.
A day earlier, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island warned the Senate against setting a potentially dangerous precedent.
“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,” the ACLU’s executive director Steven Brown wrote Ruggerio on Tuesday. “To vote to expel a sitting Senator without any formal, carefully considered procedures establishes a dangerous practice. In the absence of clear due process standards, the Senate’s actions in this case will set a precedent that could be used for less principled purposes in the future.”
Ruggerio responded: “I am concerned with the working environment here. I am concerned with young people, pages that might be a little impressionable. I mean, I am concerned with, obviously, the integrity of the Senate.”
Asked about the potential for setting a potentially dangerous precedent, as cited by the the ACLU, Ruggerio said: “Look, it possibly could. However, you have to rely on some of the people up here to use their better judgment to make a determination how to address situations… And I have great confidence in the members of the Senate to be able to do something like this.”
He also said, “It’s not something we are going to be doing every other week … And you need a significant support.” While the Constitution is silent on the actual threshold for expulsion — two-thirds of those present and voting or two thirds of those elected — Ruggerio said: “I would use, in an abundance of caution, two thirds of those elected.”
Other lawmakers have faced criminal charges while serving in the Assembly, including in one recent case involving rape. Ruggerio, himself, has had a few comparatively minor brushes with the law.
Asked the threshold, in his mind, for expelling a sitting legislator, he said: I think the severity of it … What has been published and what has been unsealed… as it relates to a page in this chamber, is really troubling.
“Some of these kids are very young. They come in here 15 or 16, very impressionable. I mean, if someone approaches them, sometimes they may not make the right decision, and they might be taken advantage of and exploited … That’s really troubling. Parents allow these kids to come here to become pages and see how government works, and I am sure this is not a part of their expectations. That is something that has to be addressed immediately.”
Ruggerio said he doesn’t know how the actual hearing might go on Tuesday night, whether Kettle might bring in one or more witnesses to attest to his character or sit in, or take part in, the hearing, from his seat as an “ex officio’’ member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,’’ Ruggerio said. “I am not looking to deny anyone their rightful say. I am not looking to stifle what anyone has to say.”
Asked which of the charges was the tipping point for him in the consideration of expulsion, Ruggerio said: “I think both issues are serious, but one is more severe than the other … But the page situation was kind of like the straw that broke the camel’s back … And this is, as far as I am concerned, a real deplorable type situation because it affects a minor.”
“I don’t have to tell you what’s happening around this country … with the hashtag #MeToo movement bringing issues of this nature to the surface,’’ he said. “That’s kind of hastened this situation.”
“I know some people have talked to him [Kettle] about resigning,’’ including Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, Ruggerio said. “I did not.”
“If he had resigned when this all started, there would have been a special election for his seat,” but now “that time frame has passed.”
Asked if he was aware of any other similar allegations, he said: “Rumors abound and I don’t pay attention to rumors.”
Ruggerio effectively ruled out the elimination of the page program, while saying a reorganization is possible.
“In light of this particular situation, we are going to take a close look at our page program … I just want to see if we can have a better method to operate around here.”
But “I am a big fan of the page program and I would hate to see that eliminated because of a situation like this.”
On Twitter: @kathyprojo