November 22, 2006

Your Local "Good Guy" Dem Legislator Enables the Problem Pols

Marc Comtois

It's no big surprise that the R.I. Senate Democrats--33 out of the 38 State Senators--unaminously re-elected Joseph Montalbano (D-N. Providence) to be Senate President and M. Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport) as Senate Majority Leader. This despite the fact that Montalbano may currently be the target of an FBI invesigation. (Something, by the way, that both Bill Rappleye of NBC10 and the ProJo's Katherine Gregg brought up at the Dems celebration). From Gregg's story:

In June, the citizens group Operation Clean Government filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission about Montalbano's failure to mention on his annual financial disclosure statement the income his law firm had been getting since at least 2003 from the Town of West Warwick. Last month, the commission itself lodged a complaint against Montalbano for failing to disclose additional income derived in 2002.

Both stemmed from the disclosure by The Providence Journal on the day the Senate was poised to vote on placing the doomed West Warwick casino proposal on the ballot that Montalbano's North Providence law firm had been paid $86,329 including expenses by the town since 2003 for legal work that included clearing the titles on two parcels of land near the proposed Harrah's-Narragansett Indian casino.

By late last month, the FBI was involved.

The FBI subpoenaed records regarding his title work in West Warwick, a town councilwoman confirmed that she had been questioned by the FBI about how Montalbano came to be hired by the town, and Montalbano acknowledged the FBI "questioned several senators, members of my staff and they questioned me."

Montalbano said he welcomed the investigation because he had nothing to hide and had been assured he was "not a target."

Asked yesterday if he had taken any steps in advance of last night's Senate Democratic caucus to assuage any concerns his colleagues might have about his predicament, Montalbano said he saw no need: "To a person in the Senate, no one has questioned my determination that I will protect my integrity to the bitter end."

To be fair, there are no charges against Montalbano. But note the careful wording of his last statement: "no one has questioned my determination that I will protect my integrity..." I'm sure he's determined to protect his integrity, but not questioning his determination to protect his integrity isn't the same as not questioning his actual integrity. (Sure, I may be parsing a bit too closely, but Sen. Montalbano is a lawyer and has experience in the art of wordsmithing).

Yet, then again, even if they had such questions, it wouldn't matter anyway. Montalbano's re-election reveals questionable judgement on the part of the Democrat caucus who have decided that someone who is currently under a cloud of ethics charges is worthy of leading them. So much for the negative repercussions of the appearance of impropriety. Why didn't they elevate Sen. Paiva-Weed instead? She's proven to be an effective leader and there are no clouds threatening rain upon her parade. Instead, I'm left to believe that fear of political repercussions--or maybe just habit--has put Montalbano back on top.

Remember how the Democrats told us that a vote for Chafee would be a vote for Bush, because Chafee--though he may disagree with the President on almost everything--would ultimately help keep the President's "corrupt" party in power? The same applies on the state level here in Rhode Island, folks. Your local legislator may be a good person--just like Senator Chafee--but the votes and support of these average, "good guy" Democrats serve to prop up the same political problem children with whom everyday Rhode Islanders are supposedly so disgusted.

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The problem is with getting local voters to think beyond their district (the old folks at high-rises, people who voted the endorsed Dem slate because their parents did, etc.).
I just remember what happened about 10 years ago in Massachusetts when the opposition to Billy Bulger tried to run progressive state Senate candidates in primaries against Bulger supporters. The issue of overthrowing the Corrupt Midget never got traction in local races, though, and all those challengers lost.
Sat what you want about Bulger, but he knew the political value of coffee and doughnuts. I suspect Montalbano does, too. If only a progressive Dem would rise up and challenge him...

Posted by: Rhody at November 22, 2006 11:32 AM

This reminds me of the start of the new legislative session that began a few weeks after John Harwood’s wife was appointed a lifetime Magistrate Judge, and at a 100-plus thousand dollars a year to start.

That is was announced, and she was sworn in, all during the week between Christmas and New Years when people were distracted did not seem to bother anyone.

Nor did the fact that former-Democratic officeholder Judge Rogers committed what would appear to be an egregious violation of the Canon of Judicial ethics, i.e., “avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.”

Well, a few short weeks later, the Democratic House overwhelming and enthusiastically re-anointed John Harwood as their leader (and de facto leader of the Rhode Island Democratic Party).

There is such a thing as “institutional culture.” The record indisputably mandates a conclusion that the Rhode Island Democratic Party has an institutional culture in which corruption is not just endemic, but embraced and celebrated.

There is also such a thing as “civic culture.” Rhode Island’s civic culture is one of corruption. It’s sad to say that the majority of Rhode Islanders have adopted the Democrat culture of corruption as their own, but they have. I used to believe the conventional wisdom of the “our guy is OK, the rest are bums” explanation for this State’s voting habits, but after RISDC and all the rest it’s just too much to believe that Rhode Islanders don’t understand the dynamic that a vote for any Democrat is a vote for corruption.

Rather, it seems that Rhode Islanders take a perverse pride in it; witness the embrace of Buddy Cianci. Perhaps it all stems back to our history of Mafia influence – the culture became one of “anyone who’s not putting bodies in the Providence River” is, by comparison, ethical.

Perhaps it’s because the Democratic Party has controlled Rhode Island for so long, and has been corrupt for so long, that Rhode Islanders just think it’s the natural order of things – “always has been, always will be.” After all, eventually a pig farmer stops noticing the smell, and perhaps the majority of Rhode Islanders have become so acclimated to the stench of corruption here that they don’t even notice it.

So sad, for Rhode Island has so much potential … all being squandered.

Posted by: Tom W at November 22, 2006 3:42 PM

Good post, Marc.

In addition to fund raising, conveying this message is the most important thing that we, the RIGOP, must do: "High taxes? Poor services? Corruption? Stop voting for the party that brought us all this!"

Posted by: SusanD at November 22, 2006 9:13 PM

I never knew that RI politics was so interesting to the Far East! Thanks!


Posted by: Marc Comtois at November 23, 2006 7:53 AM

The truly sad observation is that so many Rhode Islanders have been involved with this corrupt system for so long that they no longer regard it as such. Too often, these people can't understand "foreigners'" shocked reaction to "the way we do business here in Rhode Island." Then, of course, comes the usually litany of defensive reactions: "but there's corruption everywhere" and "Rhode Island is no different than anyplace else."

Of course not. I'm sure every state has multiple federal grand juries investigating the workings of its state legislature, lobbyists and union leadership.

On the other hand, there is a sort of evolutionary genius behind the Rhode Island system. By creating so many insiders -- who, either legally or econonically would suffer from the system's demise -- and by its implicit (and sometimes explicit) threats to others who would rock the boat, the leaders of this system (I will leave it to Robert Corrente to determine whether it qualifies as a RICO Conspiracy)have been able to extract literally billions of dollars from businesses, wealth, and all-too-many not-very-wealthy-at-all taxpayers to transfer to themselves and their fellow insiders, via one scheme (or government program, pension, or whatever) or another. That the system has lasted so long testifies to their genius for sustaining it.

Ultimately, however, I think the smartest among them realize their system is on its last legs. On the one hand, the feds are closing in. On the other, the marks have wised up -- just look at the trends in corporate and individual (and, indeed, sales) tax collections. When you have to put so much pressure on the property tax, it isn't a sign that the system is in good shape.

And so we are now in an end-game of sorts, with an increasing scramble to get what's left before the inevitable collapse. That's why some have floated the ridiculous (economically) but predictable (politically) idea of a pension bond to close the $5 billion plus deficit in our public employee retirement benefits programs. And that's why we're going to see an attempt to broaden the sales tax this year (to cover everything except legal, and perhaps medical fees), as well as a desperate fight to preserve and expand social welfare spending programs.

It's going to be very ugly, and even more painful for the people who, for way too many years, have been on the receiving end of this shakedown. But, for better or worse, the end of the story has already been written.

Posted by: John at November 23, 2006 8:31 AM

Tom W
Lincoln Almond Jr. also a Federal Judge
(Magistrate) of course that WAS NOT POLITICS.

Posted by: jay at November 23, 2006 2:30 PM

>>Tom W
Lincoln Almond Jr. also a Federal Judge
(Magistrate) of course that WAS NOT POLITICS.

Yes. And we’ll never eliminate the “it’s who you know / who you’re related to” element from politics and the patronage that goes with it.

But there are major differences. Almond had to be confirmed by Congress, at least a somewhat public process that (theoretically) inhibits total abuse of patronage.

On the other hand, the General Assembly – run by Harwood – engineered a “workaround” of the semi-reformed judicial nomination / selection process. They expanded the number of magistrates not subject to that process, including at least one that was a lifetime appointment.

As part of that process, they left the selection to a 100% behind closed doors unilateral discretion of the non-elected Presiding Justice of the Superior Court. No disclosure of the identity of applicants, no public hearings, no involvement of the public whatsoever.

Then Rogers announces the appointment during the week between Christmas and New Years, and Ms. Harwood was sworn in a few days later. That he chose that time to do this on its face demonstrates that Rogers knew that – at an absolute minimum - it looked suspicious.

Did Rogers have a deal with Harwood, e.g., for a Supreme Court appointment to cap off his career? Was it just the old Rhode Island “wink and nod” and Rogers, as a former Democrat officeholder, knew that he’d have chips that he could cash in later? Did Harwood have some dirt on Rogers and lean on him? Who knows. Perhaps it was none of the above.

But the fact that the questions can be plausibly asked, coupled with the timing of the announcement and swearing in, lends credibility to raising the possibility that Rogers violated the Canon of Judicial Ethics, i.e., he did not avoid “even the appearance of impropriety.”

That the Democrat General Assembly then enthusiastically embraced Harwood marks the whole Party as accomplices.

Little wonder that Irons and Celona did what they did – it’s just the way things are done in the Democratic Party in Rhode Island.

Posted by: Tom W at November 23, 2006 3:14 PM

The other difference between the appointments was competency. It was a factor in Mr. Almond's appointment - not in Mrs. Harwood's. For the first year and a half she was on the job, all of her work had to be extensively corrected and re-written.

Posted by: SusanD at November 24, 2006 2:22 PM

SusanD -

To paraphrase Clinton (cringe): "it depends upon the meaning of what 'competency' is."

Here in corrupt Little Rhody, "competency" is not defined by ability to perform the job, but where you stand in the "who are you related to?" hierarchy.

Posted by: Tom W at November 25, 2006 10:38 AM
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