September 11, 2007


Justin Katz

Montalbano's public statement gives the impression that he thinks $12,000 is a reasonable fine for a minor paperwork error:

I am pleased to have reached a resolution of this matter that is fair and just. The finding of the Ethics Commission in this case - that I failed to complete my paperwork - accurately reflects what happened. I offer no excuses. I have freely admitted this mistake from the beginning, I take full responsibility for it, and I accept the fine of the Commission as appropriate.

To their credit, the Ethics Commission recognized that there was no personal benefit to me or my clients based on my vote last May regarding the constitutional amendment. Further, the Commission agreed with me that there was no conflict between my votes and the public interest, or the Code of Ethics. It was never my intent to hide the fact that the Town, like several other Rhode Island communities, has been my client for many years. Fortunately, in this case, there were plenty of instances on the public record where my work for the Town was freely available in the public realm - including newspapers, on-line and in state and local documents that were readily accessible to anyone. My activity on behalf of my client was out in the open and above-board.

I am embarrassed that I failed to complete the required paperwork. The transparency that these documents are designed to create fosters public trust in the people’s government.

I sincerely regret that by my actions I have contributed to a cynical view held in some quarters that something is just not right in Rhode Island government, and that for some elected officials, private interest takes precedence over the public good. There may be exceptions, but in my experience, the exact opposite is true. I will spend the rest of my career working diligently to prove the cynics wrong.

With this matter closed, I look forward to continuing to do my best to address the people’s business as President of the Senate, and next year, for the 11th time, to face the judgment of my neighbors and constituents.

Thank you.

I think one learns everything necessary from the fact that the first three words of the statement are "I am pleased."


The press release from Gio Cicione hits some good points, but the party organization still has to improve its understanding of its audience and the facts that ought to be seeded into news reports on political happenings:

Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Giovanni Cicione says Senate President Joseph Montalbano may have settled his ethics case with the State Ethics Commission today, but the larger problem of General Assembly Democrats using their public office for professional opportunities remains.

"The Senate’s top Democrat’s decision to pay this fine rather than go through a public airing of the ethics violations against him, does not end the bigger problem of leading Democrats viewing political office as a means of enhancing their professional endeavors," says Chairman Cicione.

Montalbano was accused of a conflict of interest by failing to report tens of thousands of dollars in income from legal work he performed for the town of West Warwick in connection to the proposed site for the failed Narragansett Indian casino while the Senate was holding hearings and voting on the controversial proposal. The settlement, the third highest ever reached by the Ethics Commission, also means Montalbano is dropping a lawsuit against the Commission he was filing in Superior Court. "Maybe this is why the highest ranking Senate Democrat’s approval ratings by Rhode Islanders come in at an embarrassing 16%. Paying a fine won't restore the trust Rhode Islanders have lost in top Democrats as the poll indicates."

A Brown University survey out today showed approval ratings for Democrat leaders of the General Assembly to be sinking since an earlier poll last January. In addition to Montalbano's approval rating, the poll showed Speaker William Murphy’s approval ratings have dropped from 26% to 21%.

Poll numbers are of interest only to those who follow politics closely, and that's not the crowd on which the RIGOP ought to be focusing (except as a medium for controlling the debate). Somebody working with Gio ought to develop a collection of talking point lists to increase the degree to which newsworthy items can be placed in a context favorable to Republicans. This press release, for example, should have listed names of the ethically challenged Democrats of the past (as Ragin' Rhode Islander rattled off in the comments to my previous post. The bulk of the press release, however, ought to have noted other suspicious circumstances indicating Rhode Island's endemic corruption. (The practice of the judiciary hiring relatives of legislators comes immediately to mind, although I'm sure Anchor Rising's readers have many more that they'd be willing to supply if asked.)

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Didn't the Governor settle a similar case after attending a Patriots game with some corporation?

Hardly seems like a strong issue for the leadership of the GOP.

Frankly, I don't think that a legislator's private work on behalf of a municipality -- even if that municipality has an interest in legislation -- is the type of thing that the Ethics Code was intended to address.

Maybe there's more out there on Montalbano, and there probably is plenty of dirt on other legislators, but this case was a pretty thin reed on which to hang allegations of corruption in the General Assembly.

Posted by: brassband at September 11, 2007 8:54 PM

Perhaps the reed is thin... or perhaps it's another height on the camel's back. If it were such a minor thing, though, the wild contortions of Montalbano's lawyer would seem to have been a horrible horrible mistake (at least politically).

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 11, 2007 9:03 PM

Why the heck would Gio bring up the Brown U./West poll when the Governor had an almost unprecedented 15 percentage point drop in job performance rating? (And how much of that drop can be credited, er, debited, to Gio?)

Posted by: Bob Walsh at September 11, 2007 11:02 PM


I agree that this case was pretty unexceptional by Rhode Island standards.

But that makes it all the more unusual that Montalbano didn't go with the "forgotten paperwork" explanation earlier on in the process, to dispose of the matter more quickly. He sure didn't win himself any new political support with his "I am above ethics law" defense.

I suppose it could have been a case of his lawyers thinking they were smarter than everybody else and seizing a chance to make new law, not realizing how much public attention the case would eventually attract.

Posted by: Andrew at September 12, 2007 12:10 AM

From my observation, litigators -- even brilliant ones -- are quite often "tone deaf" to the political fall out from the legal positions that they stake out on behalf of high profile clients.

I would also observe that Montalbano's positions -- on speech in debate and the jury trial claim -- were colorable and non-frivolous. But politically it does not play well for the Senate President to be taking a legal position that would effectively emasculate the Ethics Commission.

Anyway, I go back to the point that he was doing legal work for a municipality, which I suggest ought to be viewed differently from business done for a corporate or private client.

Posted by: brassband at September 12, 2007 6:25 AM

"Anyway, I go back to the point that he was doing legal work for a municipality, which I suggest ought to be viewed differently from business done for a corporate or private client."

Brassband, he was doing the work for a corporate client: Harrahs. They funded the legal work he was doing. Yes, West Warwick fig-leafed it for them by being the intermediary. But Harrahs was the source of that money.

That was one of the big problems all along with the $86g. The corporation who would ultimately benefit from his vote paid him that money. It is also presumably one of the reasons he settled - he couldn't have day upon day of that connection splashed in the headlines.

Ultimately, it was more important for him to try to put it behind him and retain the presidency. (And the 2007 Eddie Bauer.)

Posted by: SusanD at September 12, 2007 7:27 AM

I had not heard that Harrah's was paying his legal fee. If true, that would have made for a very interesting hearing, I agree.

Posted by: brassband at September 12, 2007 8:46 AM

I'm not sure about the jury trial issue, but the speech-in-debate claim was pretty frivolous. The U.S. Supreme Court has explicitly stated that its broad interpretation of SID immunity does not apply to laws narrowly drawn to regulate legislative conduct.

They even reiterated this statement in one of the key precedents (U.S. v. Brewster [1972]) that Montalbano cited in his defense!

Posted by: Andrew at September 12, 2007 8:53 AM

See, if Gio was a real idea man he'd take some money and buy a billboard on Rt 95 in North Providence with Joe's face on it that says "Joe Montalbano, your Senate President, is using his office for his own personal gain at your expense....

...And he's not the only one."

And then, down the road, have another billboard that just lists the names of every Dem who's been caught screwing the taxpayers.

Posted by: Greg at September 12, 2007 9:48 AM

Andrew --

Montalbano was making a speech in debate claim under the RI Constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court cases are instructive, and the Supreme Court of RI might follow their reasoning in applying the RI Const., but the RI Supreme Court is also free to interpret our own state clause as affording more protections to legislators than the federal clause provides to Members of Congress.

Because there are very few decided cases under our state constitution, it is not possible to predict how the RI Supreme Court would treat the issue.

Don't get me wrong -- I think Montalbano would not ultimately have prevailed on the speech in debate argument -- but in light of the paucity of precedent for our RI clause, I don't think it's fair to call the argument frivolous.

Posted by: brassband at September 12, 2007 11:13 AM
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