February 12, 2012

The More Things Change...

Patrick Laverty

I don't think that I can add much to the story in Sunday's Providence Journal about what looks like an attempt at "pay for play". Sam Zurier, the Councilman from Providence's Second Ward (East Side) is alleged to have been trying to shake down a couple of constituents for a campaign donation after he got a sidewalk repaired for the homeowners. The request for the sidewalk repair went in from the Witman family because Gary Witman had become a quadriplegic and there was a risk of his wheelchair tipping on the broken pavement. The repair took five months from the time the Witmans put in the request and cost the city $4,500. At that point is where the story turned a bit dark for the family. The first-term councilman sent the family a letter that contained:

“This Fall, I held a fund raising reception. I am grateful for the generous response of our neighbors. Everyone who promised to support my campaign followed through with a contribution –– everyone, that is, with one exception.”

Zurier reminded them how he “went to bat for you” to get their sidewalk repaired, despite a scarcity of city funds.

Additionally, the article refers to another instance where Zurier went to see the family to check on the sidewalk work and also to get the campaign donation. When he was unsuccessful, he followed up with a separate letter:

“I also was grateful for your kind and generous offer to support my political campaign. The reporting deadline is almost upon us, so I would appreciate your making your contribution in the coming week. I enclose a card and an envelope for your convenience.

Rhode Island doesn't need more instances like this. This is exactly what is wrong with politics in Rhode Island. Everyone believes that the whole government operates under a "pay for play" so when examples like this come out, it further undermines the confidence in the government.

Then with the final letter, where Zurier expresses his disappointment in the Witmans for not donating to his campaign, Mrs. Witman was taken aback at the tone of the letter she received:

The tone of the letter is astounding.… It’s an angry letter. If he is so angry because he did his job, maybe he should leave his job.”

Lastly, Zurier tells the reporter

I am saddened that I caused them distress,” says Zurier. “It is now clear that my interactions with them undermined their confidence in me as a public servant. It is my hope we can sit down and discuss this issue further, so I can regain their confidence.”

Yet again, one has to wonder, is he saddened that he caused the family distress or is he saddened that he got caught?

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I thought he was better than that.My councilman,Mike Solomon,is totally different-he responds to questions and/or complaints and never has his hand out.

Posted by: joe bernstein at February 13, 2012 12:26 AM

Wow. It isn't just that he completely missed the concept of public service. (Right there, get out of public life if you don't understand that.) It's that he tried to "shake down" for a campaign contribution a family with a quadriplegic member.

Posted by: Monique at February 13, 2012 7:37 AM

It's the amount that's astonishing. For sale... and cheap!

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 13, 2012 7:57 AM

We've already established what you are, sir. Now we're just haggling over the price.

Posted by: George Bernard Shaw at February 13, 2012 8:44 AM

It comes from the top. The entire RI Judicial system is rotten. The Attorney General's Office does the same thing every year with new prosecutors and other staff - "Oh yes, we might have a place for you in September. By the way, the AG is running for reelection/governor/etc., you might want to consider a campaign contribution." Cross reference the campaign contributions from newly appointed judges sometime (usually from 3rd or 4th tier local law schools). You're going to see a lot of "SENATE DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP COMMITTEE" and "M. TERESA PAIVA- WEED" type entries coming up. Republican governors don't change this, it just forces them to trade ponies.

Posted by: Dan at February 13, 2012 9:18 AM

I don't see 'pay for play' here at all. The Witmans seem to have intimated that they would help Councilman Zurier, who had to go to great lengths to get this sidewalk fixed. When they didn't end up contributing, I think he had every right to feel slighted.

Hell, I've made donations (after the fact) to politicians just because they heard me out. It's the polite thing to do. I certainly wouldn't tell someone that I'd be donating (or attend a fundraiser) and not follow through. I think the Witmans 'played' Zurier here and he had every right to call them out for their less-than-stellar reciprocation.

The real problem here isn't Zurier, it's a city that can only repair ONE fifteen foot long patch of sidewalk every two calendar years. Repairing sidewalk shouldn't require engaging politicians in the first place, it should be pretty high up on a city's day-to-day, well before even schools, firefighting, and anti-smoking campaigns.

Providence is collapsing. Badly. I'm not talking about the budget, I'm talking about flooding when it drizzles because storm drains aren't clear, sinkholes opening up over collapsed sewers, and roads that need to be torn up for utility work that the city doesn't have asphalt to cover back up.

Tavares made a deal with the devil last year: He managed to 'save every job' in Public Works, but now the workers literally don't have the materials they need to do their work.

Posted by: mangeek at February 13, 2012 11:42 AM

Mangeek - Those "great lengths" are still just part of his job he was elected to do, and he doesn't deserve any special favors for doing it. He shouldn't be treating it like a favor or a quid pro quo in the first place, which he clearly was, and his solicitation of contributions is inappropriately aggressive regardless. We'll never know if they promised him a campaign contribution or not - if they did, then that was wrong. It was probably just an awkward encounter with a lot of beating around the bush. But what was the point of his letter if not to intimidate? Nobody is going to respond to something like that favorably.

Posted by: Dan at February 13, 2012 1:21 PM

"still just part of his job he was elected to do, and he doesn't deserve any special favors for doing it"

Unfortunately, taxpayers AND politicians are now getting pushed to the ends of their decency by the financial situation. Personally, I think it's polite to send a check when I consume a politician's time.

A few years ago, getting a sidewalk fixed was something your councilman could just do for you... It might take a while, but it got done. Crews were out doing that stuff. Now, there's probably five layers of B.S. the councilman has to go through just to get the money appropriated. Nobody is getting what they bargained for.

What interests me is how this is in the very neighborhood that Cicilline built fountain in two years ago: www.anchorrising.com/barnacles/009298.html . So now we have a pretty fountain over a foundation of impassable sidewalk. Government priorities gone awry.

As for 'pay-to-play', This ain't it. The job got done regardless of the check, and I'm inclined to read the councilman's words in a more forgiving light. Nobody in that neighborhood (which I am from and still share ties to) feels that they live somewhere where they have to write checks to get things done. Back in the day, you used to have to make a contribution BEFORE the politician started 'going to bat' for you; THAT was pay-to-play. This is Sour Grapes and Bad Manners by the Witmans and Councilman Zurier, nothing more.

Posted by: mangeek at February 13, 2012 1:34 PM

"The Attorney General's Office does the same thing every year with new prosecutors and other staff"

Egg-zactly. Let's see Ed Achorn run a list of everyone who works for the AG-including the non lawyers.
More useless hacks there than a Matt Jerzyk pow-pow at the Wild Colonial or Local 123.

Posted by: Tommy Cranston at February 13, 2012 2:12 PM

This is so typical of your elitist, snot-faced liberals. They care about the down-trodden - as long as it serves their own interests.
Can you imagine this @hole was up for a judgeship. And, the scumbag puts it in writing??? WTF!! This guy is one dumb bastard. So typical of all liberals. They are a bunch of stupid liars.

Posted by: Mike Cappelli at February 14, 2012 10:35 AM

Mike, read the story Patrick linked, then look up this family in the campaign finance database, then take a look at the neighborhood on Google Maps. This ain't the downtrodden.

What used to work in Providence (tapping someone you know to get stuff done) isn't working anymore, because NOTHING is getting done for anyone. Just like the unions and the human services going after each other over the shrinking budget, this is what happens when the influential find that their influence no longer carries the same weight.

Back when a few dozen sidewalk jobs were done every year in each ward, it would be trivial to make a call and get yours bumped to the top. Now that NONE are getting done, Zurier seems like he was in the unenviable position of having to tell 'important' folks 'no'. Well, they didn't take 'no' for an answer (which, arguably, is a taxpayers prerogative in Providence); they went to Paolino, and Zurier also got to work on it... All before anyone was talking about money.

In my opinion, this is actually a reflection that pay-for-play corruption is NOT happening anymore, even the big-wigs are being told to wait in line like the rest of us.

Posted by: mangeek at February 14, 2012 1:10 PM

What makes this news is:
(a)Zurier had the stupidity to put it in writing
(b)"Big wig"or not the person was quadraplegic,a condition that treats all equally badly.
Zurier seems like that very intelligent type who can't tie their shoes.

Posted by: joe bernstein at February 15, 2012 5:23 AM
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