— RI Political Corruption —

April 13, 2013

A Local Focus on Apathy and Fear

Justin Katz

My essay on apathy and fear in Rhode Island is in today's Providence Journal. From the version that Anchor Rising readers may have already read on the American Spectator's site, I've changed the focus a bit and added some key anecdotes with a much more local focus.

To expand even more on the anecdote about the woman's comment about my children: When she realized I was standing next to a local news reporter, she shouted across the street that her comment to me was "off the record." Those who know the rules for reporters know that wasn't a legally binding request, but I don't think the reporter had any interest in shining light on that aspect of Tiverton politics.

Then the woman decided that she liked her offensive comment so much that she walked back across the street, past me and the reporter, to say the same thing to a female friend of mine who had just exited the building (albeit more quietly, so the reporter couldn't hear).

As with government overtime for laundry workers, it's entirely possible that the only instances of outrageous and destructive governmental and political activities in Rhode Island are the ones that happen to be discovered. I'd wager, though, that what I've managed to observe or hear about is only the slightest indication of a much more integral culture of corruption and intimidation.

That junk doesn't end, and Rhode Island doesn't begin to heal and to recover, until it comes into the light and, more importantly, Rhode Islanders insist that it is wrong. Bad voting habits are important, but shamelessness may be even more insidious.

April 2, 2013

RIOpenGov Strives to Fill Transparency Void

Justin Katz

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has posted state payroll information to its transparency Web site, RIOpenGov.org. The site lists all state employees by name, department, and division, and presents their pay, including overtime, for the years 2010 and 2011.

The Ocean State Current drew some attention to this data last week, with reports on the high pay of nurses and laundry workers, as well as high overtime payments across state government.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

December 18, 2012

Things We Read Today (43), Tuesday

Justin Katz

Explaining Rhode Island's decline in four brief sections: legal process, the economy, the media, and fashionable graft.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

October 24, 2012

Things We Read Today (26), Wednesday

Justin Katz

Mainly on government's bad incentives: bad housing spending in Providence, unlearnable spending lessons for the governor, stimulus corruption, and Medicaid reform.

Continue reading the Ocean State Current...

July 11, 2012

07/11/12 - Board of Elections

Justin Katz

3:27 p.m.
After a quick zip across from the WPRO studios in East Providence, I'm in the Board of Elections hearing room awaiting the board's vote on withholding phone and email information from voter registrations on an emergency basis. See Andrew Morse's background report for details.

I'd wager that the attendance is not usually so robust for these events. The chairmen of all three parties are here. Multiple RI Tea Party folks. Ocean State Tea Party in Action folks. Rhode Island Republican Assembly. Other familiar faces. Phil Marcelo from the Providence Journal; Jim Baron.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

October 7, 2011

Usurpation Cannot Be Challenged in Central Falls

Justin Katz

This ruling is worth highlighting before it slips in the vast mire of news about Rhode Island's fatally ill civic structure:

The state-appointed receiver running Central Falls can go after Mayor Charles D. Moreau and the City Council to recoup legal fees spent defending the receivership law from Moreau’s unsuccessful state Supreme Court challenge, a special federal bankruptcy court judge ruled Friday.

Look, it stinks that a struggling city would have to pay for both sides in this legal battle, but there's a clear value to ensuring that a law that completely removes local democratic control is at the very least vetted in a court of law. Compare that with, say, Tiverton, where taxpayers are paying the school committee's legal council to argue against the town solicitor, for whom the taxpayers are also paying, over $367,000 that the town treasurer removed from the school committee's earmark on the grounds that it exceeded the local appropriation approved by the financial town meeting and that represented a surplus for the schools, anyway. In that case, the lawyers' bills must fund the process through the education commissioner and the Board of Regents before it even gets to a court of law. (Not surprisingly, the commissioner in charge of the school system found in favor of the schools.)

The controversy in Central Falls reads like a tale out of some third-world backwater trying to fake representative democracy:

The receivership law gave the first state receiver, Mark A. Pfeiffer, and then Flanders the powers of every elected and appointed official in city government. Pfeiffer had specifically refused to authorize the lawsuit and told Moreau and the council not to contest the law. They did anyway.

In the effort to recover the expenses from the appeals, Flanders' lawyer, Theodore Orson, has argued — and a Superior Court judge agreed — that because Moreau and the council disregarded Pfeiffer's orders, they can't claim the suit was part of their official duties.

Well, duh. After a coup, the elected officials have no "official duties," and the usurper will never be likely to grant permission for a legal challenge. Apparently, the judicial system in Rhode Island buys the logic of tyranny (which should be too surprising, considering that the American judiciary has been imposing policy and amending the Constitution via lawsuit shortcut for decades).

October 4, 2011

The Pension Performance Is Already Underway

Justin Katz

I wanted to go to last night's Publick Occurrences event, but after around 10 hours of motivational speeches and get-rich sales pitches, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Part of the problem is my suspicion that the game is already set, and like those sales pitches, everything being said right now is just a performance. General Treasurer Gina Raimondo gave Newsmakers a pretty good indication of where leadership is going:

Raimondo signaled a COLA freeze will be a key part of the plan, saying a suspension of the annual increases could reduce the unfunded liability by up to $1 billion, depending on whether the freeze is full or partial and if it continues for "a lengthy time." That would be the most significant change for current retirees. ...

The third major plank expected in the Raimondo-Chafee proposal: reamortization, or stretching out the schedule for paying down the unfunded liability, which raises its long-term cost. The treasurer has criticized reamortization in the past as inadequate, but said Friday she can support it if it's tied to other changes. ...

One policy Raimondo doesn’t support: raising the retirement age for state workers who are already eligible to retire, which she said could result in a rush to the exits before the new plan takes effect.

The game is up. (The "second plank" was a hybrid plan moving forward.) We're looking at a $7-9 billion shortfall. $1 billion will come from a little temporary tweaking of COLAs, and the rest will fall to reamortization, which only increases the burden down the road, and there's still a probability that all of the "fairness" and "spreading the pain" talk indicates additional tax increases, beyond what's already been pushed down to towns and cities by lowering the expected rate of return on pension investments.

Plainly put, the people running the show in Rhode Island aren't willing to avoid yet another bad long-term repair to the problems they've created by making the changes that have to be made for pensioners across the board. So, they're pretending that a temporarily suspended annual adjustment (in a continuously bad economy) is the end of the world.

That's why legislators are making such a big deal about "doing the right thing" and voting to reduce the pensions that so many of them and their families are receiving or will receive: Because it's not nearly enough of a reduction in total benefits, and in a sense, they're negotiating the public down.

September 28, 2011

The General Assembly Line for Pensions

Justin Katz

Have you spotted the line of argument that members of the General Assembly have devised for explaining why legislators who benefit from public-sector pensions are free to vote to changes to the system? Here's retired NEA member and recently elected representative from East Providence (whose pension comes in at $54,512, annually):

Echoed Duffy Messier: "Everyone I talk to understands that something's got to be done and ... if the COLA is reduced or frozen for a while, if that's the worst, then they are fine with it."

Duffy Messier said she would have qualms voting if it "was going to affect me positively," but that is not what she anticipates.

And here it's put a little differently:

Dawson Hodgson, R-North Kingstown, acknowledged that "nothing compels" a legislator to do [recuse], and that several legislators have publicly indicated their intention "to do the right thing and ... vote against their self-interest," which was how he described a vote to suspend or reduce, at least temporarily, the annual cost-of-living increases of up to 3 percent the state currently provides its retirees.

The problem is that a suspension or reduction in cost of living adjustments (COLAs) is nowhere near adequate, so self-interested legislators would, in effect, be voting in a way that affects them positively by voting for a measure that isn't as dramatic as it really has to be. The question isn't giving pensioners more versus giving them less; it's the amount of negative change.

Sadly, even Hodgson appears to be indicating that my predictions for the General Assembly's "reform" might be more accurate than I'd like:

... reamortization with some sort of tax increase (perhaps pushed through local governments and property taxes) and a mild reduction in benefit levels for future retirees — such as an additional year or two before they can retire or a couple more years of salary folded into the calculation for benefit amount.

I should have added some adjustment to COLAs, but doing so doesn't change the overall... bleak... picture.

September 23, 2011

Rhode Islandism on Rhode Islandism

Justin Katz

Mangeek's comment to my post about the very Rhode Island background of the prospective head of hte 195 commission is just too appropriate not to reproduce for additional commentary:

"when Kane's father was a principal of a Providence elementary school"

I had the pleasure of attending that school during Principal Kane's tenure. He was an amazing man who singlehandedly kept order over the students and faculty. If Colin has just 10% of what his father did, then I actually feel better about this commission.

When I was in fourth grade, a bully had pushed me to my breaking point. I chased him through the halls, finally catching up with him at a stairwell. I tossed him down a flight of stairs before teachers arrived and restrained me. Apparently I was so hungry for justice on the little jerk that I sprained the teacher's arm trying to finish what I started.

I was naturally sent to Mr. Kane's office, where he closed the door and told me that what I did was wrong, but he wished he could throw that little bugger over a stairwell himself. He'd take care of the issue with the teacher's arm if I wrote an apology to her.

I think that if the same thing happened under anyone else, there'd be EMTs, police, and union reps involved. I give credit to the guy for caring enough to see what happened for what it was and give me a chance to make things right without resorting to 'the system'.

So, Mangeek's response to a government entity that he might otherwise consider an embodiment of overreach is mitigated because the father of the group's prospective leader once did him a favor. He might protest that this anecdote was merely one of many, but it is the one he mentions, and moreover, transferring respect from father to son isn't inherently justified, and it doesn't come close to legitimizing a specific government action.

Let me say, though, that I agree with Principal Kane's approach to dealing with problems in his school. He assessed the situation with more intimate knowledge than is available in blanket policies; he chose a course of action that wouldn't encourage passivity in the face of bullying; and he prevented a young Boygeek from entering into a web of consequences that can overwhelm healthy development. Most of all, he would ultimately have had to take personal responsibility if Boygeek had taken his spiel as encouragement and stalked the bully home for a final beating with an iron pipe.

That sort of problem solving isn't available in government policy. The consequences for bad public policy take too long to manifest, and they aren't as clear as a boy responding to a bully with a little more violence than is tolerable. Within that lack of clarity is too much room to disperse blame across elected and appointed officials and for elected representatives to stitch together support through completely unrelated actions. In other words, the chain of accountability for land development can disappear in a gauze of personal favors and approval related to social issues, among others.

Yet, individual judgment remains no less important on a big scale than on the individual one in which Principal Kane acted, which is a very good reason to limit the activities of government in the first place.

September 2, 2011

Redistricting from a Narrow Range

Justin Katz

Even putting aside the inevitable corruption and fingers on the scale with the latest redistricting commission — which will help in determining which constituencies are grouped together for the purpose of electing government officials — the membership strikes me as having a conspicuous narrowness of geographic coverage:

  • Rep. Stephen Ucci, Johnston
  • Rep. Grace Diaz, Providence
  • Rep Donald Lally, Narragansett
  • Rep. William San Bento, Pawtucket
  • Ray Rickman, Providence
  • Delia Rodriguez-Masjoan, Providence
  • Felix Appolonia, West Warwick
  • Sen. Michael McCaffrey, Warwick
  • Mary Ellen Goodwin, Providence
  • Beatrice Lanzi, Cranston
  • Juan Pichardo, Providence
  • Francis Flanagan, Middletown
  • Matthew Gunnip, Pawtucket
  • Arthur Strother, Providence
  • Rep. Joseph Trillo, Warwick
  • Rep. Daniel Reilly, Portsmouth
  • Sen. David Bates, Barrington
  • Sen. Francis Maher, Exeter

Granted, our state isn't all that big and the population centers around Providence, but one third of the appointees are from Providence. John Marion of Common Cause appears encouraged "that the commission represents a degree of 'racial and ethnic diversity,'" as reporter Randal Edgar paraphrased, but I wonder whether that's the diversity that ought to be considered of greatest importance.

From my perch in Tiverton, I've found the breakdown of districts peculiar. My state senator's district spans all the way to Warren — two bridges and an inconvenient drive away. My town's other senator draws some of his voting base from Newport, yet neither of them touches down in Portsmouth, the town next door.

I suspect much could be understood of the list above (and the results that those on it will provide as they begin their work) by breaking out recent votes by precinct. It seems to me, though, that for real representation diversity ought to be considered as a matter of where people live and the cultures of each community. For that to be possible, the redistricting commission would have to be such that the geography covered couldn't fit under a "Vote Democrat" coffee cup placed on a standard glove-compartment map.

August 1, 2011

Re: Disabled (Ha!)

Justin Katz

Monique's already expressed a justified skepticism about this:

Former firefighter John Sauro remains permanently and totally disabled from doing his job in the Fire Department, an orthopedic surgeon has concluded after a special examination.

But the surgeon recommended additional tests to confirm his finding.

The report by Dr. Anthony DeLuise Jr. was submitted Wednesday to the city Retirement Board, which voted to have the additional tests done.

Sauro, you'll recall, retired in his late thirties with his tax-free disability pension of $45,600 and fully paid health benefits and at age 48 spends a great deal of time bodybuilding. As Monique highlights, Dr. DeLuise's conclusion was based on a physical exam, viewing of WPRI's sting video of Sauro's workout, and the decade-old medical records that won Sauro his boon in the first place.

This initial finding is just part of the process, of course — which process appears designed to delay and give politicians and bureaucrats plenty of opportunity to grant Sauro and his union a soft exit from the public spotlight. Meanwhile, in the wave of controversy and careful phrases, like "permanently and totally disabled from doing his job," the larger question is lost:

  • Even if Sauro has difficulty with a very limited range of motion
  • and even if the risk of further injury makes it inadvisable for him to perform active firefighter duties
  • should a public-safety-job-related injury mean that the employee never has to work another day in his life even though his impairment is so minimal as to be unobservable?

June 22, 2011

Rhode Island Hurts Famlies

Justin Katz

In a moving letter (that does not appear to be online), small-business-owner David Durfee of North Scituate tells of his historical need to work harder to "overcome the obstacles created by the General Assembly" but expresses gratitude for having been able to be nearby for his father during his final days. He goes on:

It was then that I realized what the politicians in this state have taken from us. How blind I was to a problem I could not resolve with just hard work!

It is that our sons and daughters see no future for themselves in Rhode Island. My two oldest children have already moved out of state. I now realize the increasing likelihood that the pleasure of having my children around me as I age has been stolen from me. More friends are talking about moving to be with their children. With them will go their wealth and businesses.

Such are the effects of bad governance. I continue to fear that a line may have already been crossed: That enough families have up and left over the years that there is no longer a voting base to turn the situation around. Still, except for those few who are well enough connected to secure employment for their entire families (such as the Iannazzis and Ruggerios), the damage described by Durfee is applied to most of those who benefit from Rhode Island's bad governance as well as those of us who don't.

June 15, 2011

A Glimpse Behind the Union Curtain

Justin Katz

We've all made such mistakes as the Internet allows... replying too quickly for rationality to assert itself, sending mail to the wrong person, accidentally forwarding a conversation thread to parties with whom we shouldn't share them. When RI AFL-CIO President George Nee accidentally replied to an email by Providence Journal columnist Ed Achorn that he appears to have intended to forwarded to somebody else, however, he gave us a glimpse of labor's backroom exchanges.

Achorn had expanded his inquiry into the matter of Senate Majority Leader Dominique Ruggerio's hiring of Stephen Iannazzi, a union colleague's college-dropout son, at $90,000 per year to include Nee, and subsequently received the following reply:

the man has little to do with his time, i will not reply or speak to him, you can send this to marl if it helps but it doesn't appear that they can back him off, great reporter he just figured out i am the chair of the baord

"Backing off" may refer to a threatening email that Achorn mentions earlier in the column, or perhaps it refers to some other strategy. After all, Achorn's long been a target of the local labor hierarchy, which sends minions to disrupt his public speeches and such.

Whatever the case, it's surprising that the entrenched union powers would allow the cracks to begin showing over such a minor matter as a near-nepotistic job swapping, especially at a time when the spotlight is already on the unsustainability of their sweet pension deals. Even a mild inquiry into union-backed scholarships that Iannazzi had received from the Rhode Island Institute for Labor Studies begins to reveal the deeper game: The Institute's executive director, Robert Delaney ($113,822 total compensation, plus benefits), comes into the public eye by refusing to answer Achorn's basic questions and brings with him Carolina Bernal, who also works for the Institute and whom Governor Chafee appointed to his newly labor-friendly Board of Regents for Elementary Secondary Education.

That dot connects to Board of Regents member Colleen Callahan, who would be Mrs. Delaney if she'd taken her husband's name and who works for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and health Professionals, taking home $183,971, plus benefits.

An interesting task for somebody with the time (which would be me were I able to make a full-time job of Anchor Rising) would be to create a chart of the various union positions and their associated salaries, as well as the personal links of the people who hold them. Such a resource might shed some light on the environment in which young Iannazzi procured his job and why powerful union leaders might want to back people away from the house of cards, lest they breathe a bit too heavily on it.

June 9, 2011

More Commentary on Stephen Iannazzi

Justin Katz

My situation may be unique (although I doubt it), but one of the consequences of Rhode Island's political and economic structure is that it is so darn difficult just to get by and raise a family that little time remains to keep a consistently watchful eye on local political corruption. Such has been the case in my efforts to garner commentary on the union-rep nepotism that brought 25-year-old Stephen Iannazzi into a $90,000 State House job.

But the responses have come trickling in, nonetheless.

To recap, young Iannazzi's boss, Senate Majority Leader Dominique Ruggerio has defended the hiring in no uncertain terms. East Bay state Senator Louis DiPalma defended it, as well. Responding to an inquiry from me, several local elected officials took varying positions. Since then, Tiverton Town Council Member Rob Coulter sent the following:

Thank you for calling this to my attention. I agree that the qualification profile and the close relationships connected with such a highly paid public position are grounds for serious concern and further inquiry.

While obviously this involves a state – not Tiverton – position, we all share a common interest in transparent, efficient government. With Rhode Island suffering from the third worst unemployment rate in the nation, I’d say taxpayers, and other state employees for that matter, deserve a thorough confirmation of whether this $88,000 position was, and still is, appropriately filled. Perhaps a more thorough explanation will satisfy these questions which have been fairly raised, and I hope that our Senate delegation will take the appropriate steps to ensure public confidence in the integrity of the public hiring system and that taxpayer dollars are being spent fairly and wisely.

Coulter's fellow Tiverton Town Council member Joan Chabot looked into general salary levels:

I have reviewed the Providence Journal article that you indicated in this email and conducted some research into JCLS. I couldn't easily find hiring/compensation procedures for the JCLS, but found only that it should be similar to the procedures used by the executive branch.

I also researched salary information for a legislative assistant/legislative aide position to get an idea of the "going" rate. That research produced an average salary of $46,000 for a legislative assistant/aide at the state level.

Based on this research, I think it is very suspicious that a person with no experience and no college degree could qualify for a legislative aide position with a starting salary of $88,112. Common sense dictates that this issue deserves further explanation and scrutiny.

Many questions come to mind... What was the hiring process? Were there other applicants for this position? Were interviews conducted? What are the salaries of other legislative assistants/aides? Is this person’s salary in range of the other assistants/aides? If it is, why is the salary range so high?

This should certainly send up a red flag in government spending at a time when the state can least afford an $88K legislative aide. I’m certain we can find several college graduates that would take the job for half the salary. Our state legislators should be questioning this issue and pushing for answers from the JCLS now that they are aware of the situation. And if irregularities are found, then the situation must be addressed.

From the RI House, Representative Dan Gordon (R, Portsmouth, Tiverton, Little Compton) responded as follows:

I believe that at a bare minimum, the questions that have been posed by the media and the public regarding the hiring of Mr. Iannazzi must be answered. The lack of responses thus far are certainly lending to the cloud of suspicion.

As a State Representative and custodian of taxpayer dollars, it is troubling to me that there are obvious family and labor ties involved in hiring this young man. I’m certain the people would like to see his resume, what exactly are the job duties of a Senate Aide that justify an $88,112 salary with state benefits, how the position was advertised, and the resumes of the other applicants. I know for a fact that highly qualified degree holders have offered to do the job for half the salary. Let’s see some transparency from the Senate chamber.

And Rep. John Edwards (D, Tiverton, Portsmouth) mailed the following on House stationery:

Thank you for contacting me in reference to Senator DiPalma's remarks concerning a recent hire by the Senate Majority Leader. While I do not know this particular individual or of his qualifications, I was surprised to read that someone so young was so well compensated.

My experience has been that the level of income this young man receives is normally reserved for someone more experienced in their field. Again, I will re-iterate that I have no knowledge of his qualifications.

The hiring and personnel process in the General Assembly should be addressed to bring more transparency to it, to allow more people to apply for these positions. I have spoken to Speaker Fox, concerning the recent pay raises he has given to a number of House employees. I expressed my disagreement with his decision and shared the many outraged calls and emails I received from my constituents. The leadership of the General Assembly needs to be sensitive to the concerns of our constituents on this matter, especially in the midst of this deep and long recession.

So, I've not yet found another elected official willing to take DiPalma's astonishing step of defending Ruggerio's hire of his union pal's son at an absurdly high salary, but I've also not seen indication of any sparks for further action. I'll soon be posting a chart of people I've contacted and their responses (or lack thereof), as well as contacting more elected officials and other people involved in state and local politics.

May 31, 2011

First Responses to DiPalma Inquiry

Justin Katz

The responses have begun to trickle in to my inquiry about the support that Sen. Louis DiPalma (D, Little Compton, Tiverton, Portsmouth, Middletown, Newport) has expressed for Senate Majority Leader Dominique Ruggerio's hiring of a union pal's son at a very high salary. So far, I've sent (or attempted to send) variations of the following note to members of Tiverton's State House delegation and to town council members from each of the municipalities that DiPalma represents:

As a resident of Tiverton, I've taken a particular interest in statements that Senator Louis DiPalma has made with regard to Senate Majority Leader Dominique Ruggerio's hiring of Stephen Iannazzi. Therefore, I am seeking comment from various organizations and elected officials from towns that Mr. DiPalma represents for publication on AnchorRising.com. (Absence of comment will also be noted.) When the content justifies, I will write a summary essay, which I will submit to every appropriate state and local publication.

If you haven't come across this story, the short version is that Mr. Iannazzi is 25 years old and holds no college degree (with credits in "labor studies" from Rhode Island College), yet he makes nearly $90,000 as a "special assistant" in Mr. Ruggerio's legislative office. Stephen is the son of Donald Iannazzi, a business manager for Local 1033 of the Laborers International Union affiliate, which employs Mr. Ruggerio's son, Charles. Sen. Ruggerio also works for another arm of the Laborers International Union.

In response to an inquiry from Providence Journal columnist Edward Achorn, Senator DiPalma replied as follows:

"Since joining the RI Senate some 2 years ago, I have seen the leadership, with the Senate President at the helm, attract, nurture and retain top talent with extensive capability and capacity," he wrote.

"With respect to Mr. Stephen Ianazzi [sic], I have interacted with him on a regular basis. Stephen has performed admirably on each of his assigned tasks. From the results he has produced . . . Stephen is qualified to serve in his current capacity. I look forward to his continued results-based performance providing real value to the R.I. Senate and all its members. He certainly has a bright future," wrote Senator DiPalma.

My question to you, as an elected public official in a municipality that Sen. DiPalma represents is: Do you believe that such a suspicious hiring requires a more detailed justification?

At the time of my sending the question, the City of Newport's Web site was completely down, and four of the email addresses that Little Compton provides for its council members bounced back.

The first response came from Middletown Town Councilor Antone Viveiros:

All I can do is wonder if Senator DiPalma , as a manager at Raytheon, would hire, then defend his hiring of someone with such qualification/experience, to his superiors, and pay him or her nearly $90,000, without having a job description or having advertized the position, or would refuse to explain the need for such a position, if it was corporate funds, instead of taxpayer funds?

Tiverton Town Councilor David Nelson, who is also president of the local good-government reform group, Tiverton Citizens for Change, was even more pointed:

The hiring was WRONG. No job description, fair posting, screening and interviewing of applicants, or any semblance of fairness. Since this is a publicly funded position, paid for by the taxpayers of RI, we deserve a fair and transparent approach. There are plenty of qualified persons who would do the job for less. Mr Stephen Iannazzi has not earned anywhere near the salary he's been paid, and he does not deserve this, nor has he earned it. The cost of the fringe benefits per RI Department of Revenue is 58%. So with pension contribution, Social Security, health insurance, etc., the cost to the taxpayer for this position becomes $132,000. This is a scam, which in a transparent society would be reversed.

Councilor Chris Semonelli, of Middletown, by contrast, appears to be ambivalent about the hiring:

I am not familiar with the individuals mentioned in the Providence Journal article, in your note below and the potential situation mentioned.

However, I am familiar with Senator Lou Di Palma and have the utmost admiration for his integrity, abilities and accomplishments to date.

Senator Di Palma has been instrumental in developing many efforts to help get our state out of a lot of its historical quagmires.

I have not only been personally impressed, I repeatedly hear from his constituents and colleagues that he has either helped them with his follow through efforts or developed laws to help those less fortunate in the State of Rhode Island as either a Senator or a Town Councilor .

You can see by his track record on record with the state that this is indeed the case.

I feel we are very luck to have the Senator representing the people of Rhode Island and hope that he continues to represent the Great State of Rhode Island for many years to come.

I also want to thank you for your research efforts we do need these ongoing efforts to keep all activities transparent in government and to protect its integrity .

Meanwhile, the president of Middletown's Council, Arthur Weber, was even more ambivalent:

This is a senate issue, no other comments.

Given reductions in state aid to Rhode Island's cities and towns, not to mention the effect that State House spending and policies have on every Rhode Islander, one would think that a council president could at least summon an expression of concern.

Next up will be a table of the responses and non-responses thus far, and I'll be broadening the field of those whom I ask for comment.

May 6, 2011

Sleepy Public Construction Methods

Justin Katz

I've had occasion to drive through the construction site of the new Sakonnet River Bridge in Tiverton quite a bit, lately, and no matter how many times I see it, I never fail to be impressed with the structural inefficiency of the work habits. The other day, I saw three employees gabbing over two who were doing masonry work while two stood nearby to direct traffic in those infrequent instances when a construction vehicle had to cross the sparsely traveled back road and a police officer sat in his car. One wonders if that's where WPRI reporter Tim White's latest catch got the idea that it'd be just fine to sit in his car to eat, read, and sleep for three or more hours per day:

That dozing fellow is Department of Transportation engineering technician Kevin Coulombe, who is responsible for inspecting road and bridge materials. White notes that Coulombe oversaw the Barrington Bridge project "which was $11 Million over budget and took twice as long as expected."

According to Transparency Train, Coulombe's 2008 salary was $50,712, so clearly he's no Stephen Iannazzi. Perhaps if he actually works his full six hour day (or whatever it is) he can reach that high level of extreme competence.

But Who Dropped the Anchor?

Justin Katz

RI General Treasurer Gina Raimondo uses an apt metaphor to describe the significance of the state's public pension problem:

"If you remember one thing from me this afternoon, remember this," Raimondo said, speaking bluntly: "fixing this state's pension system is not an issue, it is the issue. Our state retirement debt is an anchor holding our state back and preventing our growth into the future."

She goes a bit far, to my mind, in that state and municipal governments have sunk myriad anchors over the year — of taxation, regulation, mandates, and so on. Pensions are notable because they provide a stark dollar amount of looming debt. How much the state has lost in economic activity because its policies are constructed to pool power in the hands of a few narrow classes (mostly related to tax-revenue-related employment in one way or another) is not so easily calculable.

Perhaps out of political calculation or perhaps because she's not ready to begin discarding the worldview that her progressive supporters recognized in her, Raimondo leans quickly away from the larger problem underlying the state's pension difficulties:

She acknowledged the challenge is complex and emotional. "I am extremely sympathetic to our state employees and our teachers. They did everything they were told. They have paid into the system as they were told. They have worked hard faithfully every year. It's not their fault. And we should not blame employees. The fault is that the system was designed poorly. And if you're looking for a culprit, I believe that culprit is politics."

For some 30 years, she said, elected officials extended benefits for retirees without putting enough money aside to pay for them.

Let's not soft-pedal this. Among the "everything they were told" was voting for particular candidates for political offices at both the state and municipal levels and engaging in such activities as strikes and work-to-rule in order to foster an environment favorable to their side of negotiations. (Indeed, the number of politicians who have been union members over those 30 years is probably too high to count.) With only so much they could give away to labor in the open, those friendly politicians gave away money that wouldn't come due for years to come.

The culprit may be politics, as Raimondo insists, but it has been a politics dominated by and consciously perpetuated by employees and their unions. The current crop of such politicians cannot ignore the pension problem much longer (despite the hypnotic cooing of union propagandists), and although it's possible that they'll change what needs to be changed without naming it, that outcome isn't very likely.

May 5, 2011

The 25-Year-Old Keeping the Senate Together

Justin Katz

To hear RI Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio (D, Providence) tell it, Rhode Island's legislature is practically run by 25-year-old Stephen Iannazzi (son of the highest-paid union boss in the state... in the same union for which Mr. Ruggerio makes a hefty salary, as well):

Mr. Iannazzi showed extreme competence and was an invaluable asset to the Senate and the people of Rhode Island, whom we serve. While not seeking to give an exhaustive list of Mr. Iannazzi's credentials in this space; it is these qualifications which have come under attack. I therefore find it important to note just how well-qualified Mr. Iannazzi is for the specialized role he has been asked to fill.

Well, if young Iannazzi's "competence" was "extreme," how can anybody argue against his receiving $90,000 of taxpayer dollars in salary? Of course, in the manner typical of hyperbolic letters of recommendation, Ruggerio lists a number of initiatives in which Iannazzi played a role, but doesn't go into detail about the actual tasks that he completed.

For example, Iannazzi helped staff the Senate's Small Business Task Force. Does that mean that he reviewed the experience of every potential candidate and made recommendations, or that he called the assistants of legislators on a list that he was given? He helped draft various bits of legislation (which, having read through many bills, I don't take to be inherently impressive), but does that mean that he did legal research concerning the law to be changed and comparable laws in other states, or that he typed in changes to laws that others had reviewed?

Even so, by what calculation did Ruggerio arrive at a salary? The quarter-century kid wouldn't work for a penny less? Sorry: It still looks like a corrupt transfer of public money to a union pal's son. In keeping with his specific avoidance of details, Ruggerio asserts that "numerous senators and other government officials have voluntarily approached [him] to praise Stephen's ability, work ethic, and knowledge of the issues facing the Senate." Well, let those legislators and officials come out from behind the vague reference and publicly stake their reputations on the capabilities of a young high-school graduate hired at a high-end salary in the midst of a continuing recession and with the state facing massive deficits year after year.

Then let the public watch Mr. Iannazzi and be wowed.

May 3, 2011

The Advantaged Class at the Town Level, Too

Justin Katz

Providence Journal reporter Mark Reynolds dipped into the pension situation in Johnston, on Sunday, focusing on this case:

Fire Lt. William R. Jasparro was 41 when he ended his 20-year career as a Johnston firefighter in 1990.

Jasparro's retirement package paid him about $18,255 per year [with cost of living adjustments] — based on half of his final years' earnings. He went to work in construction and later took a job at the state's Central Landfill, which ultimately paid him $80,000 a year.

Most folks would be satisfied with a "retirement" benefit payable for 30-plus years (plus health care coverage for life), assuming he lives to the median age for men and doesn't hand it off to a spouse. Eight years into his retirement (or perhaps "second career" would be more accurate), Jasparro sued to be bumped up to a disability pension, which would have yielded 100% of salary, tax free. At least by the article's description, it doesn't sound as if he had much of a case, but the town settled, giving him 67% of salary, tax free.

It occurs to me that Rhode Island would profit from a town-by-town investigation, with the results aggregated somewhere to give the public a fair sense of just how pervasive such deals are. How many people are collecting retirement benefits while working in another branch of the state's public sector? It'd be interesting to know. For example, another Johnston retiree, 51-year-old former police detective and union president John Nardolillo, is now a police officer in West Greenwich. Whatever his salary is, there, he's taking home $33,982 based on his previous career.

Growing up, I planned to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and adjust my income expectations accordingly. Rhode Island's public sector clearly has more than its share of people whose focus is mainly on working the system. And there's a lot of system to work. As much attention as I pay to such matters, I don't believe I've ever come across this factor, before:

Also, under Rhode Island law, the state pays the tuition for the disabled firefighter or police officer and his or her children to attend any Rhode Island state college.

It'd be interesting to see a total cost of that benefit and have the list of beneficiaries combed for young retirees who go on to second careers or intensive weight-lifting hobbies.

April 28, 2011

A Rhode Island Story

Justin Katz

Ed Achorn was intrigued enough by (as his title puts it) "The 25-year-old high school grad with the $88,112 job" to have asked around for the fuller story surrounding Stephen Iannazzi, newly appointed "special assistant" to RI Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio. His report is characterized, most significantly, by the closed doors and unreturned calls and emails with which he's been greeted, but Achorn's found enough to prove the Iannazzi family's facility working the RI system:

Ann Marie Iannazzi, Stephen's mother, earns an annual salary of $69,933 working for Providence as "employability chief" at Workforce Solutions of Providence/Cranston, according to Margaret Wingate, deputy director of human resources at City Hall. His sister, Andrea Iannazzi, is chairman of the Cranston School Committee and a lawyer in the state Family Court, earning an annual salary there of $71,812, according to Craig Berke, the judiciary's director of communications. His uncle, Joseph Baxter Jr., is state courts administrator (he did not hire Andrea). Andrea and Stephen are listed as members of the "host committee" for a fundraiser for Angel Taveras, now Providence mayor.

Stephen's Facebook page notes attendance at Rhode Island College for the five years ending in 2009, although he never completed his intended degree in Labor Studies. He did, however, receive a scholarship from the Institute for Labor Studies, on whose board his father sits. While trying to track down details of the scholarship (unsuccessfully), Achorn found himself conversing with Institute employee Caroline Bernal, newly minted member of Governor Chafee's Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education.

And so it goes...

April 19, 2011

Meet the New Toady, Same as the Old

Justin Katz

Charles Wales, of Cranston, makes the argument that they were, indeed, the bad old days back before public-sector unionization:

Yes, they were indeed bad times: Elected and many non-elected persons held sway over municipal departments. Favors, assignments and promotions were granted, often without the smallest indication that merit was considered. Lackeys, sycophants and toadies were the winners from the lowest worker up to department heads. City departments had become the playthings of those ranging from the very prominent to shadowy figures patrolling in the political background.

My fellow non-union Rhode Islanders may wonder, upon reading that passage, what has really changed. Well, obviously, what's changed is that unions are now integrated with that corrupt spoils system. Remember Mayor Laffey's battles over the crossing guard union? His run-in with the fire fighters? And let's not limit ourselves to Cranston, especially when we've got the Iannazzi-Ruggerio connection so fresh in our minds.

If the situation was as Wales describes it, one could argue that having employees who weren't part of the spoils system helped to permeate government with whistle blowers on the taxpayers and voters' side. Now it's possible to collectively buy them off... "possible" being used, here, in exclusion of the question of whether the local society can afford to support the system in perpetuity.

April 4, 2011

Pensions from the Top

Justin Katz

This paragraph from a weekend PolitFact points to the really disturbing part of news about $100,000-plus pension payments:

The Wisconsin report didn't compare starting retirement salaries. It simply catalogued the elements each state used to calculate the amount. To do the calculation, you take a worker's final average salary (usually the average of the last three, four or five years of employment), multiply that by the number of years of service, and multiply that by a percentage that varies widely.

In that light, the thing that ought to really bother taxpayers isn't so much the huge pensions (although they are rightly eye-catching), but the path that some people take to them. Take this guy, for instance:

Former House Speaker Matty Smith retired in 1993 with a $73,000 pension that reflected his 15 years as a legislator and his much higher-paying stint as state court administrator before he — and then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fay — were forced to resign amid a scandal over a high-level cover-up of the theft of court money. ...

Smith's pension is based on his 15 years as a part-time legislator, his 5 1/2 years as Supreme Court administrator, his 4 1/2 years as a Providence schoolteacher in the 1960s, another 4 1/2 years of credit — he was allowed to buy at a one-time cost of $432 — for his years as an archivist and special lecturer in history at Providence College, and 6 months in the Army.

With 3-percent compounded annual increases, Smith's pension has grown to $100,078.56.

There's so much that's clearly wrong with this scenario that it feels redundant to list it all, but the largest part is basing a pension on a high-end political patronage job and many years as a part-time legislator. That alone creates incentive for corruption, because securing that golden retirement depends upon maintaining a political position for a long time and being in sufficient good graces with public administrators empowered to grant high-salary jobs to cash in those years of "public service."

March 22, 2011

Baby Steps to Good Government

Justin Katz

Don't get me wrong; it's great to see any movement toward improving the way the General Assembly does business, but it does seem like a deliberately slow, small-step process:

With the hold-for-further-study language still intact, the new rules ultimately passed by a vote of 63 to 5. Among the changes: House votes must be posted online, lawmakers cannot take up new bills after 11:30 p.m., and the House speaker must propose a plan to make audio recordings of all committee meetings.

The reporting is confusing, but I'm pretty sure the first sentence means that bills can still be held for further study. As for the deadline for new bills, well, 11:30 is still pretty late... and what about amendments. For its part, posting votes online is pretty obvious.

It's the audio thing that I find truly amazing. For less than $100 each, committee heads could be given digital voice recorders, which they could be required to run during committee meetings. After each meeting, they could hand the recorders off to staff, who within minutes could download the audio to a server and/or upload it to the Internet.

What is the basis for debating to vote to demand a plan to consider the possibility of requesting that committee meetings be recorded? All told, it would be less than $1,000 of technology and less than an hour of cumulative labor for all involved in preserving and posting the files.

March 16, 2011

Drug Dealer... Not a Stretch for Rhode Island

Justin Katz

I've admitted before that I'm more or less ambivalent about the legality of marijuana, but as usual, Rhode Island's method of operations layers in an unseemly and suspicious twist to the process:

All told, that's $3.5 million in new tax revenue over two years. The Health Department is expected to announce on Tuesday the names of operators for up to three dispensaries. They will be chosen from a list of 18 applications. ...

The future of the state's caregiver system is unclear. Last month, two bills were introduced in the General Assembly that would require all medicinal marijuana to be grown and sold through dispensaries — a move that would for all intents and purposes end the caregiver program.

To put some totals on this sequence of legislation, the governor is expecting medical marijuana to be a $60 million business in Rhode Island, and the General Assembly may make the law of the land such that all the money filters through three entities hand-picked by the state. That's an instant $20 million business facilitated by the Department of Health. Looks like another instance of corruption by design, in Rhode Island.

If Rhode Island is to shift this slice of the illegal drug industry into the legal category, it should follow either the pharmacy model (if the pretense of medical benefit is to be maintained) or the liquor store model. Making the State House a den of pot kingpins is not the way to go.

(The applications submitted by the three newly selected dispensaries are linked here. There are no names as blatantly indicative of inside dealings as, say, Bill Lynch's, but that's hardly a mitigating factor when the potential for corruption is baked into the legal regime.)

March 7, 2011

Playing the System for Profit

Justin Katz

Gregory Rich, of Cranston, points out the profitability of being a member of Rhode Island's governing class:

Because of [former House Finance Chairman Steven] Costantino's 16 years as a part-time representative, he will only have to work a few years at his new pay rate [as $142,000-a-year secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services for Governor Chafee] to qualify for a pension the rest of his life at his highest year salary.

These are the types of deals that hurt the state pension system, not the state worker who puts in 35 years and retires on a small pension.

I don't think the public pension system is sustainable even without this sort of abuse, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth noting just how profitable it can be to play the government game. This isn't quite what I've meant when I've suggested that the legislature might attract a broader field of candidates if it paid better. Costantino's had the means to accept mostly political influence as compensation for the past sixteen years, and legislators shouldn't have to keep their eyes open for ways to cash in that influence.

January 15, 2011

Power to the Leadership

Justin Katz

In contrast to the promise of more open government in the Republican-controlled U.S. House that I noted earlier, this head-turner came via GoLocalProv today:

[Newly appointed Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Peter] Palumbo [D, Cranston] said he has just started poring through all the rules, but he already has some ideas about what he would like to see changed. For one, he’d like to tweak a rule that allows a state rep to yank a bill that is blocked in committee as long as he or she gets enough of their fellow reps to sign a petition. Palumbo, who at first liked the rule as a freshman lawmaker, said it is better for bills to go through the thorough vetting process of committees before making it to the House floor.

Killing legislation in committees is one of the key ways in which the political establishment keeps a firm grip on power in Rhode Island. It certainly is not a good sign that this is a rule high on Palumbo's list for this legislative session.

December 27, 2010

A Due Respect for Political Patronage Job Holders

Justin Katz

Looking out the window prior to work, today, brings to mind this article about truants that I've been meaning to note for a few weeks, now:

For years, magistrates for Rhode Island Family Court's truancy program have imprisoned students who misbehave during hearings on their attendance, despite a state law created to keep the government from locking up juveniles for noncriminal offenses.

The magistrates, who run the weekly truancy court in classrooms, cafeterias and school offices around the state, have declared youths as young as 12 in criminal contempt of court for not answering their questions, swearing, slamming a door on their way out of the room or otherwise showing "total disregard for authority," according to court documents and interviews.

Once inside the state's juvenile correctional system, the youths are forced to undergo strip searches, urine and blood tests. They wear prison uniforms and, for a night or two, mix with teenagers accused of drug dealing, robbery, weapons possession, assault and other violent crimes.

All of this without legal representation. Moreover, as we note from time to time (here and here, for two), magistrates are tainted by the fact that they are not appointed by the same process as judges, but by the Chief Justice of the RI Supreme Court and by other magistrates.

Imprisoning kids for disrespect is certainly the sort of thing that the holder of a political patronage job would talk him or her self into believing to be in the best interest of all involved. Perhaps people acting as judges who aren't judges at all, but mere politically connected lawyers, come to believe that they're above the law. Or perhaps they feel like they've got something to prove.

December 6, 2010

An Indication of the View from the Top

Justin Katz

Anybody who wonders what lesson the General Assembly's Democrats took from the last election need only read this:

"In our effort to achieve savings, we have worked diligently to manage the legislative department within the enacted budget levels without seriously impacting day-to-day operations," wrote [House Speaker Gordon] Fox in a cover letter that also spelled out his bid to increase the part-time legislature's budget from $38.7 million this year, with 299 staffers, to $40.3 million in the new budget year that begins on July 1, 2011, with the same number of employees.

In dollars alone, this would mark a 20-percent increase — $6.8 million — over the $33.5 million the General Assembly actually spent in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2009, according the budget filing.

Most of the proposed increase over the three-year span is attributed to "salary/wages and benefits."

Those paragraphs come at the end of an article about Fox's sweeping of some political opposition out of the General Assembly's paid staff. Clearly, the Speaker took the election as evidence that his backers have a lock on the state. I suspect that the next two years will show us the repercussions when that's the case.


See here for a mitigating consideration. Much of the increase in the budget might be attributable to a required redistricting expense.

October 20, 2010

A Swiss Cheese of Ethics

Justin Katz

Frankly, it's more than a little convenient that so much attention has recently fallen on various eyebrow-raising actions of Judge Frank Caprio, Sr., in his capacity as chairman of the Board of Governors for Higher Education just as his namesake son is running for the office of governor. Still, this is pretty egregious:

Last week, the [ethics] commission's former executive director, Sara M. Quinn, had filed a complaint with the board, asserting that in his role as chairman of the Board of Governors for Higher Education, the municipal court judge helped to arrange a $41,000 job for Donna Mesolella, wife of former Rep. Vincent Mesolella, just a month before the couple held a fundraiser at their Lincoln home. The event raised $30,000 for the campaign of his son, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Frank T. Caprio.

Caprio handed the former rep's wife's resume to an employee who answers to the commission for his job. Yet, the Ethics Commission's current executive director, Kent Willever, notes that Caprio Sr. did not stand to gain, financially, and was not related to the Moselellas, so no violation occurred.

In Rhode Island, we turn a blind eye to legislators who explicitly sell their votes and, now, to a corrupt system of insiders who cycle the state's offices and resources around to each other — as long as they're all one step removed from handing each other taxpayer cash.

August 23, 2010

Deepwater, in Summary

Justin Katz

OSPRI's Bill Felkner has an excellent summary of Rhode Island's adventures in mandated expensive wind power in the Daily Caller:

President Obama recently proposed spending $2 billion for the creation of 5100 green jobs. On government standards, that's a very thrifty $392,156 per job — a bargain compared to the $2.2 million being proposed in Rhode Island and other coastal states where the only windy, rent-free space to build windmills is on the ocean. ...

The developers claim that the state would gain $129 million through a "multiplier" effect from the money "invested," but the CEO of the company could only testify that the project would create six permanent jobs.

The project may or may not be a fait accompli, at this point, but anybody in search of a silver lining could perhaps start a betting pool about the likelihood that Rhode Islanders will correctly recognize the source of future economic pain and, if they do, about the scapegoats that the culpable parties will find.

August 20, 2010

You're All Missing the Point on Central Falls

Justin Katz

I don't know if it's a Rhode Island municipality v. municipality thing or massive frustration with the insider v. outsider structure of our civic culture, in this state, but the commenters to my Central Falls post are marching all around the point. Patrick writes:

... I understand the point that you're making, but I think it's quite a leap to think that Cumberland, Lincoln, Coventry, North Kingstown is going to receivership anytime soon. If a city goes into receivership, it means it has been so badly managed that this is what it deserves. Clearly the voters don't want good representation, they don't know what's good for them.

This is true under normal circumstances, but the trampling on principle that the General Assembly has done in Central Falls is at least somewhat likely to start wheels turning in different directions. That brings us to commenter riborn:

You are missing the first costly misstep that was taken down this path Central Falls now finds itself on - the filing of the receivership. At some point the question has to be asked why receivership in the state court and not bankruptcy in the federal court. The estimated fees of Savage and Larisa may shed light on that decision. Do you have any inkling of the fees they would have reaped had they terminated union contracts and battled it out in state court? Do you think either of them cared if they won or lost that battle? It's about the money - nine lawyers and five staffers, and a firm spokesperson, all being paid by those CF taxpayers you are so concerned with now. In receivership Savage and Larisa would get paid whether they won or lost that battle with the unions, whether they benefited CF or not. And while it presented an interesting intellectual exercise to keep nine lawyers busy for a good long time and many billable hours - who decided it was a good move on behalf of CF? Did the elected officials have any idea of the costs that were going to be incurred in that exercise? In RI, receivership is primarily a money making business for a small group of receivers/lawyers.

Yes, the GA absolutely protected their main constituents, the unions, in drafting and passing the Pfeiffer appointment bill, what is the news in that? It was begging to be done when CF was advised to seek and then filed for state court receivership. And Mr. Savage, who can't seem to speak to the media now and must hide behind a spokesperson, was front and center on the TV and ProJo front page telling everyone he was going to terminate union contracts. Did the elected officials think that was a good strategy? This is RI, who didn't know the GA would come in and save the unions?

So far there appears to be one "winner" in the CF receivershp debacle - after 60 days the $191,000 prize goes to Mr. Savage. Second prize to Mr. Larisa, who probably never made $54,000 in two months in his life.

Patrick's point only holds if receivership is an unattractive end of the line for badly run town and city governments. But as riborn highlights, the General Assembly's version has plus sides for important constituencies. With the judicial receivership, the power brokers of a municipality are rolling the dice that the self interest of the lawyers involved won't turn against them. With the new legislative receivership, unions and their elected and appointed government pals are protected, giving the decision a strong plus for a powerful constituency.

There is now, in short, a safety net for the union–municipal-government scam. Don't be surprised should the next example fall far short of Central Fall's degree of mismanagement.


Contra riborn, I think the first costly misstep was allowing Central Falls to be so thoroughly state subsidized in the first place — at least without some pain involved. Had the state funds come with the requirement that Central Falls must match the highest tax rate in Rhode Island, the locals might have had reason to put more competent people in office.

August 18, 2010

Appointees with Post-Facto Billing

Justin Katz

How marvelously emblematic of Rhode Island's operation:

The court-appointed law firm that oversaw the insolvent [Central Falls'] finances from May to July has advised the state the bill for its two months of work and other related services will be about $306,400, state official said. ...

Because Savage performed his services before the state took control on July 16, [Amy] Kempe said the bills will have to be paid.

It's almost as if this is a deliberate move intended to make the state-appointed receiver's compensation look reasonable. In summary, the Rhode Island judiciary appointed a specific person to take over the town's finances, and that person was permitted to give a cost range of $100 to $375 per hour and then hit the subsequent receiver with a surprise bill for a third of a million dollars for about three months of work.

What I find most astonishing is Kempe's statement that the state will just have to pay the bill because, "we have no say." So, with state-appointed receiver Mark Pfeiffer empowered, essentially, to bump every elected official out of Central Falls, a post-facto bill from a previous state appointee is absolutely binding? Talk about an insiders' game. I wonder whether they all joke about these matters when they bump into each other at the café at the club.

July 31, 2010

A Post Facto Rival

Justin Katz

Don't these people realize the work that Rhode Island's leaders have already put into handing a lucrative government contract to a particular wind farm developer?

A Canadian company that says it can provide Rhode Island with renewable power at a cheaper price than Deepwater Wind is urging state regulators to stop their review of a long-term contract involving the offshore-wind developer.

TransCanada Power has filed a motion to dismiss a case before the state Public Utilities Commission for a power-purchase agreement between National Grid, Rhode Island’s main electric utility, and Deepwater, the New Jersey company proposing an eight-turbine wind farm in waters off Block Island. The PUC will hold a hearing on the motion Tuesday morning.

Sheesh. It's as if TransCanada thinks this ought to be relevant to the process of providing Rhode Islanders with power:

The total price of energy from the Kibby project would be lower than 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, said Tucker. At that price, the power would be less than half the cost of power from Deepwater's Block Island wind farm.

No, no, and no again. Rhode Island is going to become the wind-energy hub of the universe no matter how much it hurts our residents or economy, and no Maine project providing the same product for half the price is going to stop us!

July 22, 2010

Slow Improvement, or Spinning Wheels?

Justin Katz

Little by little, we appear to be moving Rhode Island's political structure in the right direction:

A new law championed by East Providence officials has changed how its candidates and Central Falls' election contenders collected voters' signatures.

A provision in each of the communities' charters said voters could sign only one candidate's nomination papers. The candidate who submitted his or her papers first essentially owned every voter who signed his or her petition documents. ...

The matter was worse in East Providence because the charter also called for those seeking local office — such as School Committee and City Council — to get 200 signatures, four times the state requirement of 50.

It all seems so wonkish, but when these sorts of restrictions mount, they do create a significant disincentive to participation. The two questions, though, are:

  1. Are other instances of such policies being reinserted through the window as we shove these out the door?
  2. Are the changes happening quickly enough to pull Rhode Island out of the rut between balancing the budget and losing productive residents?

I'm afraid I'd have to offer the gut answers of: "probably" and "no even close," respectively. Although, it is possible that reform will accelerate from baby steps to a full sprint...

July 18, 2010

You Influence Me; I'll Influence You

Justin Katz

Yeah, yeah, it's certainly probable that anybody tagged to participate in a state Judicial Nominating Commission is likely to be well connected, politically, but there's just something about a professional lobbyist's making the cut that doesn't seem quite right:

State House lobbyist Richard M. McAuliffe Jr. is the newest member of the commission that helps appoint the state's judges. ...

Head of the Mayforth Group lobbying firm of Providence, McAuliffe is considered skilled at helping clients win money from the federal government. His clients include Johnson & Wales University, the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, Wachovia Global Securities Lending plus Smart Staffing, the employment firm at the center of a high-profile inquiry into state hiring practices.

Did somebody say something about a "ruling class"?

July 13, 2010

That Old Time Political Bullying

Justin Katz

Government reform is, ought to be, and may have to be a coherent movement from the municipality to the federal government. Here in Rhode Island, it's easy to see how a broad set of principles and tactics applied across government tiers have corrupted (and expanded) government and hobbled our society, and mutual support and encouragement across town and state borders will be critical to building a lasting reform movement.

It's wonderful that national tea party activities have been putting pressure on elected officials at the federal level. It's also important that, in Rhode Island, the Ocean State Policy Research Institute has formed as a think tank following issues of statewide concern, that the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition is taking an increasingly active role in highlighting bad legislation and reviewing candidates for office, and that the Rhode Island Tea Party has directed its activities toward statewide issues as well as national. I've maintained, however, that individual activism should begin at the city and town level, where government office is most accessible and where basic political principles have an immediate and local effect on voters' lives.

We're certainly finding, in my hometown of Tiverton, RI, that members of the political establishment who operate locally are willing to act as the vanguard in intimidating active residents (of the undesirable sort) to get out of politics.

The same week* Tiverton Citizens for Change President David Nelson officially put his name down as a potential candidate for Town Council, two current members of that body, Louise Durfee and Joanne Arruda, filed a defamation lawsuit against him (and an unnamed group of John and Jane Does that may turn out to include me). Their lawyer, Jeffrey Schreck, sent the initial threat of litigation to Mr. Nelson shortly before this year's contentious financial town meeting, and I'll have more to say about the suspicious timing of these events, as well as the lack of merits to their claim, in the future, but on first review, I have to express my disappointment at the level of thinking that the resources of our public judiciary must be expended to address.

The substance of the complaint made by Arruda and Durfee — the latter a former director of the state Department of Environmental Management and one-time candidate for governor — hardly has grammatical grounds, let alone legal ones — from a PDF of the summons:

6. The Letter accuses plaintiffs and their allies of submitting false documentation to the State of Rhode Island to support a tax increase. The Letter further states that this accusation of official misconduct by plaintiffs is "not an idle charge" and is "well-documented." The Letter accuses plaintiffs and others who constitute a majority of the members of the Town Council of making "a practice of sending secret, falsified documents to the state government."

7. Mr. Nelson's statements in the Letter accuse plaintiffs of wrongful, criminal conduct, and assert that TCC has written evidence to support his charges.

Here's the relevant section of the offending letter from Mr. Nelson:

Still worse are the efforts of Ms Durfee, Joanne Arruda and their allies, in deliberate cooperation with the Town Administrator to avoid a Town Council vote exceeding the State Tax cap. They have submitted false documentation to the State to facilitate a tax increase of at least 9%. This is not an idle charge, and it is well documented. Town Administrator Goncalo has stressed that the documents are secret except for him, the Town Treasurer, Budget Committee, and the State. In fact, he promised “to find out who put that form on the Internet”, as if posting public documents is now a matter for witch hunts and suppression of transparency. We have this on tape.

It is astounding that a town official would make a practice of sending secret, falsified documents to the state government based on information that distorts the current status of the town’s budget process. More astonishing is that a majority of the Town Council supports it.

Either Durfee and Arruda have skin so thin that it pains them even to be in proximity of accusations, or they're twisting the facts in order to present themselves as victims. Their names appear in the letter specifically with reference to efforts to "avoid a Town Council vote exceeding the State Tax cap," which is irrefutably accurate, given the months of public debate in which they took precisely that position. The "they" who submitted false documents to the state is the whole group of "allies," including Mr. Goncalo, and it is simply a fact that he did so. Whether Durfee and Arruda's cooperation with the larger effort extended to direct prior knowledge of Goncalo's act is immaterial, although it's reasonable to have suspicions.

Furthermore, as evident in video of the Town Council meeting at which TCC brought this matter to a public head, the town administrator clearly did stress that his act was meant to be secret. And Nelson's letter explicitly faults "a town official" — that is, Town Administrator James Goncalo — for this particular action within the larger campaign to avoid the letter of the tax cap law.

Lastly, as is also evident in the video, the lack of outrage from the majority of the Town Council implicitly lends their support. If, as their lawsuit implies, Durfee and Arruda believe that Mr. Goncalo's actions were "criminal conduct" — an accusation that Nelson's letter does not make — then they are guilty of shirking their responsibility by not censuring their employee when the matter came to their attention.

That local elected officials — who deserve partial blame for the town's thinning tax base and demand for massive tax increases in the midst of an historic recession — would twist language for political purposes is to be expected. That they would seek to leverage the overburdened court system in an effort to cost a candidate for local office time and money during campaign season is one more example of the methodology by which political insiders have fostered public disengagement from the political process.

* This post initially and incorrectly stated that the suit had been filed the day after Nelson submitted his intention to run for office. The actual filing appears to have occurred the day before his official submission, although he had inquired at the town hall about the process and requirements previously.

July 9, 2010

Deeper Water and Hot Wind

Justin Katz

The insult of this Deepwater Wind deal for offshore wind turbines just grows and grows. To review, the state government rigged the game for a single company and constructed the law to guarantee profits for National Grid as it passed increased cost on to energy consumers. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) thwarted the process based on the high cost of the energy (somewhere between double and triple the current rate). The governor and General Assembly went back into the law and re-rigged it to decrease the PUC's opportunity for and breadth of input. And now:

The first was rejected in March, because the starting price — also 24.4 cents per kilowatt-hour, but without the possibility of a decrease — was deemed not "commercially reasonable" by the three-member commission.

The new contract uses that price in the first year, but as an upper limit. Under what's known as an "open-book" proposal, Deepwater's accounts would be audited by a third party selected by the state and the price would be set according to the actual construction costs of the eight-turbine project, estimated at $205 million, and a predetermined return on investment for the company of between 10.5 and 12 percent. The amended price would then increase 3.5 percent annually over the 20-year contract. ...

Potential savings on capital costs envisioned by Deepwater could bring the price down to 22 cents per kilowatthour or thereabouts, said Deepwater chief development officer Paul Rich. ...

The new agreement provides for an additional source of savings for Rhode Island ratepayers. If the wind farm performs better than the 40-percent capacity projected in the contract, then the price would also go down.

Considering how complicit the state has been in this travesty, its role in selecting an auditor is hardly a comfort. In any case, the guaranteed profits are baked into the deal, so the audit is a formality.

Far worse, though, is the superficial nature of this change. If, by some unexpected turn of events, construction goes more smoothly than estimated and system performance outperforms expectations, savings might go to consumers. This is a reversal of the way things should work. The price mechanism should allow consumers to determine what increase would be worth the investment in this new industry and force the companies involved to shave their profits if they can't meet it. As it is, expenses and productivity are external considerations that nobody involved has much incentive to squeeze for efficiency.

June 21, 2010

Rhode Island... Something Other than a Democracy

Justin Katz

Given other content on the site, it seems like a good day to catch up with an excellent commentary by Capers Jones published in the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition's RISC-y Business newsletter:

The hectic conclusion to the 2010 summer legislative section illustrates once again that Rhode Island is no longer a true democracy. Rhode Island has become a tightly controlled oligarchy that is ruled by special interests and the Assembly leadership without any serious concerns for the good of the state, the towns, or the citizens. Here are the reasons why Rhode Island is no longer a true democracy:

Every year the General Assembly puts forth more bills than any other state, including large states such as California and New York. Usually more than 2,100 bills are submitted here in Rhode Island. Of these at least 2,000 are trivial and are used primarily to make it hard for voters to find out what is really going on about serious issues.

Jones's rapid succession of explanations of questionable legislative processes and then examples of the consequences for RI government makes it impossible to tease out a small, representative quotation. Read the whole thing, if you haven't already done so.

Rhode Island Corruption, a Tale of Two Stop & Shops

Justin Katz

From time to time, some insider or other will argue that Rhode Island isn't all that corrupt and use arrest statistics or some similar measure as proof. Thankfully, those arguments are correct to the extent that we still find unique such stories as the three councilmen in North Providence who appear to have taken bribes to manipulate zoning laws on behalf of a proposed Stop & Shop.

But Providence Journal reporter Mike Stanton's tale of another Stop & Shop, this one in Cranston, puts the spotlight on the more fundamental — and perfectly legal — political corruption that characterizes the state. Developer Richard Baccari has had trouble in the past gaining permission to accommodate the grocery chain on a particular lot near the Pawtuxet River, so for a second attempt, he sought to have the town redefine supermarkets, rather than provide a zoning variance. The more typical approach requires notice to neighbors; the new approach does not.

The corruption appeared when Baccari hired then-Speaker of the House Bill Murphy to get the ball rolling:

Murphy, who met with the mayor and his chief of staff, Ernie Carlucci, never showed them any plans, or identified the developer or the supermarket chain, says [former Mayor Michael] Napolitano. Murphy's pitch was that the project would bring the financially struggling city much-needed jobs and tax revenue. ...

A short time later, Napolitano’s city solicitor approached Councilman Richard Santamaria at City Hall and handed him a draft of the proposed ordinance. ...

Santamaria represented the Fifth Ward in central Cranston, not the First Ward where the proposed Stop & Shop would be located. He also worked at the State House as a $53,000-a-year legislative aide. Before he introduced the ordinance, Santamaria says, he talked to the First Ward councilman, Terence Livingston, who also worked for Murphy as a part-time, $65,000-a-year legislative lawyer.

Note that Murphy doesn't appear to have been actively involved, as a lawyer, other than in his capacity as behind-the-scenes advocate for the project, inasmuch as Baccari hired others separately to handle the details and appear in public.

Note, also, an "unintended consequence" whereby the change in zoning laws would have made violators of mom-and-pop stores in the city, based on a size minimum for "retail and service establishments." New Mayor Allan Fung ensured that the law addressed that concern, but one thinks of the many seemingly obvious mistakes that occur in the shell game of Rhode Island law making. This one would conspicuously have been helpful to large chains. It's surprising that the state's top legislator, at the time, would not seek and spot such problems for constituents before advocating for a particular project.

Anybody who has given passing thought to running for local office has done the calculation of time investment versus benefit, and it's difficult to make the scale tilt toward a campaign. Call it an "unintended consequence" that offices therefore fall to those with something to gain other than the direct rewards of public service.

June 17, 2010

A Sham of a Hot-Air Government

Justin Katz

Rather than simply cut the Public Utilities Commission out of the process of approving an off-shore wind project, the General Assembly, with the enthusiastic assent of Governor Don Carcieri, has effectively permitted the commission a single stamp — a rubber one:

The new law changes that measuring stick by dramatically narrowing the window for the PUC assessment. Rather than ruling whether the price is broadly commercially reasonable, the PUC must now approve the contract if it is deemed to be "commercially reasonable for a small offshore wind-demonstration project that is limited to eight wind turbines, even if there may be other energy alternatives in the region that could produce electricity at a lower unit cost."

"It's designed to make it difficult for the Public Utilities Commission to come up with a decision other than what the General Assembly wants it to decide," said Tricia Jedele, director of the Conservation Law Foundation's Rhode Island Advocacy Center. "They're essentially asking the PUC to compare the cost of this proposed project against itself."

In fact, the law is even more overt than that. It cuts the amount of time for review, appears to limit the amount of input that the PUC will accept, and requires Deepwater Wind to pay for an "expert" (via the Economic Development Corporation) to give an air of authority to the proceedings. Furthermore, in one of those cute little tricks of governance, the law states that the PUC should affirm that the "amended agreement contains terms and conditions that are commercially reasonable," and then subsequently, under a separate bullet on environmental benefits, defines the term as follows:

Notwithstanding any other provisions of the general laws to the contrary, for the purposes of this section, "commercially reasonable" shall mean terms and pricing that are reasonably consistent with what an experienced power market analyst would expect to see for a project of a similar size, technology and location, and meeting the policy goals in subsection (a) of this section.

In other words, the General Assembly and governor might just as well have passed a law approving of the project. At this point, the PUC is little more than a fig leaf of political cover.

Putting a Stop to Citizen Action

Justin Katz

As he often does, Andrew used his appearance on the Matt Allen Show, last night, to put a topic on which he's been expounding on Anchor Rising in the plain terms by which it affects Rhode Islanders. This time, that topic was the new municipal receivership law. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

June 3, 2010

E-Verify and the General Assembly

Justin Katz

When Marc called in to the Matt Allen Show, last night, the two discussed E-Verify and the political system in Rhode Island. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

May 12, 2010

The West Warwick Investment Dance Continues

Justin Katz

By way of an update on West Warwick's current public-money scandal:

An Arizona real estate firm has offered to return $3 million to the West Warwick pension board after news of the investment — and the subsequent resignation of the board's financial consultant — triggered a barrage of criticism in recent weeks.

Cole Capital sent the offer to local officials in an e-mail on Thursday. On Friday, a national real estate consulting firm released a report reaffirming repeated concerns raised by the former consultant, P-Solve Asset Solutions, which wrote last fall: "We have rarely, if ever, seen a potential investment that is more inappropriate for an institution than this one."

The people of West Warwick — of all of Rhode Island — should remember that if you keep electing the same sorts of people, you're going to keep getting the same results.

May 6, 2010

The Frog March Parade Moves to Municipalities

Justin Katz

My delay in posting this news derives from the swamp of low-grade political shenanigans through which I've been fighting local pro-tax forces in Tiverton, but it's worth noting some FBI arrests of North Providence Town Council members, President Joseph Burchfield, John Zambarano, and Raymond Douglas for alleged full-on extortion:

First Burchfield, then Councilman John A. Zambarano, and, last, Councilman Raymond L. Douglas III, were charged with the extortion of another person and receiving a bribe of more than $5,000.

The case involves a proposal to build a Stop & Shop supermarket on a former junkyard across from the North Providence High School, according to an FBI affidavit and a press release from U.S. Atty. Peter F. Neronha.

May 1, 2010

Association Ain't Nothing

Justin Katz

Ed Fitzpatrick takes a look at the controversy surrounding Central Falls Mayor Charles Moreau from the perspective of Attorney General Patrick Lynch's office:

... Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, a Democrat running for governor, is a longtime friend of Moreau's, and Moreau's spokeswoman is Lynch's girlfriend and former legislative director, Cynthia Stern. ...

Lynch, who is divorced, confirmed Stern is his girlfriend. "She is working for a mayor who needs a spokesperson," he said. "If behind that, there is a suggestion that I'm not doing the right thing, that's not true. I ethically, professionally and personally decided immediately that I shouldn't be involved in the case," he said. "I am as far away from it as I can be."

Well, as far away from it as one can get from one's closest group of friends. One can only hope that we don't wind up having to admit that "only in Rhode Island" can a politician be so intertwined with political corruption and remain a viable candidate for governor.

April 25, 2010

Familiar Names, Familiar Practices

Justin Katz

The curious story of the resignation of West Warwick's pension investment consultant brings us around (as you had to know it would) to some familiar names:

In early 2009, [Pension Board Chairman Geoffrey] Rousselle sought out the services of Jeffrey E. Bogosian, an investment broker already known in West Warwick through previous business with the pension board and a friendship with former board member Stephen D. Alves, also a former state senator. ...

... Bogosian [is the] owner of Winchester Investment Securities, which is based in the same downtown Providence office building as Alves, House Speaker Gordon D. Fox, and former House Speaker William J. Murphy.

The consultant firm that has resigned, P-Solve, argued against the investment from the beginning, and some of its concerns have a familiar ring:

On July 9, P-Solve produced a 26-page memo urging the board not to invest public pension dollars with Cole. The consultant cited a volatile real-estate market, "an extremely high" fee structure, a lack of transparency, many conflicts of interest and low liquidity. ...

[A subsequent memo], just two pages, was far more direct: "There are many reasons why we believe this investment to be wholly inappropriate for the Town of West Warwick …"

The first was "excessive fees," including "approximately 13 percent in up-front fees to pay commissions, offering fees and acquisition fees." P-Solve noted that "a substantial portion" of the fees would go to Bogosian's company, Winchester Investment Securities, for "sourcing the deal."

No doubt the outcry from concerned Rhode Islanders — specifically those residing in West Warwick and, especially, those whose pensions depend upon the board's wisdom — will be absolutely impossible to hear. The Rhode Island Way rolls on.

April 23, 2010

Re: The Biggest Faction in the General Assembly

Justin Katz

The comments to Marc's post on the number of General Assembly members who benefit from public pensions are understandable, but most miss the point. Cutting the General Assembly's pay and authority isn't going to address the essential problem — namely, that an official position that doesn't pay much will attract those who have other motivations, including other ways to profit. It's nice to think that "community service" will suffice, but devoting so many hours to such a position over a limited number of months per year puts quite a cost on that service. Retired teachers and such whose unions have given them so much have motivation to put in time for "union service," but most Rhode Islanders simply cannot justify the time.

As to cutting the legislature's authority, while that may be a laudable goal, we'd have to begin by cutting the government's authority. Otherwise the power currently held by a large number of legislators would be given to a handful of administrators and bureaucrats. In other words, change in that direction would have to go in the other direction.

Frankly, I'd be willing to argue for paying the General Assembly members more given two reforms:

  • Representation is aligned directly with cities and towns, making it clear whom members represent, and providing a clear path from local politics to state politics.
  • The "part-time" of the legislature is spread out across the entire year, with fewer hours per week. In other words, make the schedule more in line with what working people can manage.

Unfortunately, the people who would have to enact such changes like their current advantage, so such reforms would be the project of decades, and I'm not sure Rhode Island has that long.

April 15, 2010

Favor Factory Skullduggery

Justin Katz

I'm of the opinion that Rhode Island doesn't need to spend any public dollars on economic expansion — unless you're one of those who calls it "spending" when the government doesn't take as much from other people's earnings. Cut taxes; eliminate mandates; lighten regulations. Even from that position, though, it seems as if there must be something more to this:

Over the strenuous objections from some Republicans, the House approved the creation of a $125-million state-backed loan-guarantee program within the state's Economic Development Corporation.

The legislation is aimed at projects that create permanent, full-time jobs that pay at least two-and-a-half times the minimum wage, with priority going to entities that "expand high-wage jobs in knowledge industry growth clusters."

While it was described by House Finance Chairman Costantino as a jobs-guarantee program, it was denounced by House Minority Leader Watson as a scandal waiting to happen.

"If you don't want it to be a favor factory, kill the article," Watson, R-East Greenwich, said. "This is like an attractive nuisance for all sorts of skullduggery."

Rep. Charlene Lima, D-Cranston, sought disclosure of the "name, and the office, held, by any elected official who contacts the RIEDC in support of a business seeking monies" under a facet of the new program, but the proposal went down 46 to 25.

Of course, "a favor factory" is precisely what the General Assembly wishes to be. What's the point of being a part-time legislator in New England's hub of political corruption unless one can transform political clout into economic reward by way of dispensing favors? I'd say that Rhode Islanders will have to keep a close watch on this program, but lawmakers have created such a plentiful field of dark corners that concerned residents are apt to go cross-eyed trying to keep track of questionable activities.

April 10, 2010

Here's a Crazy Thought About the 15% Heathcare Co-Share...

Carroll Andrew Morse

Instead of having the legislative leadership decree that they have made a final decision on whether mandatory 15% health insurance co-shares can be included in the state's supplemental budget, how about writing the co-share provision up as an amendment to the budget and holding a floor vote -- preceded by a public debate -- to decide whether to adopt it or not?

March 29, 2010

Special Interests Strike Again

Justin Katz

This, reported in the weekend edition of the Newport Daily News, is very typical of the way Rhode Island does business:

The state has cited the company Newport’s water division hired to install new radio-read meters at all 14,500 water accounts in the city and in Middletown for not having master plumbers do the work.

The notice of violation from the state’s Division of Workforce Regulation and Safety caught the city by surprise.

Julia A. Forgue, Newport’s director of utilities, said forcing the city to hire master plumbers to change the meters would increase the project’s cost by two to three times. The contractor is appealing the decision to the Department of Labor and Training.

Non-plumber city employees have been changing and maintaining meters for years. These little requirements, jacking up the cost of living and operating in Rhode Island for the benefit of politically connected interest groups (notably unions), are why I say that the state could rocket out of its perennial recession if only it would toss aside its unnecessary burdens. This case is even more egregious, because the change of meters isn't self-initiated:

The state's Public Utilities Commission asked Newport to convert all water meters to ones that can be read from the street with a radio device, to reduce long-term costs and to make meter reading more efficient. The city in July 2008 awarded a contract to Stiles Co. Inc. of Norwood, Mass., to provide the meters. Stiles hired Five Oaks Construction Co. of Groton, Mass., as the subcontractor to install the meters, and it began the work in December 2008. By the end of last month, Five Oaks had installed just over 5,550 meters.

So, an unelected state board is requiring the change, and the state government is requiring that it be excessively expensive. Little wonder Rhode Islanders feel powerless (and just leave when the state hits their thresholds for tolerance of reductions in their quality of life).

March 8, 2010

A Picture's Worth a Thousand Contributions

Justin Katz

Or how about this one:

It turns out libraries across the state got framed photos of their local legislators during the Celebrating Local Libraries Week that ran from Feb. 7-14. ...

[State Rep.and Barrington High School Library Assistant Joy Hearn [D, Barrington] Hearn said no thought was given to how the public display of lawmakers' pictures might be perceived in an election year, because that was not the focus of the effort, but she believes she has already benefited from her own "READ'" photo campaign in a good way.

The Karla Harry Commission on Libraries initiated and financed the project with the intention of attracting more attention (and money) from the General Assembly. In exchange, the legislators get free publicity in public libraries. Yup. That's how it works, around here.

February 16, 2010

Savage Doth Protest Too Much

Justin Katz

Let's stipulate that Rep. John Savage (R. East Providence) was only on this list as a procedural matter:

In the first step in what promises to be a long and tortuous legal path, at least 18 former officers, directors and employees of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation have received letters seeking the recovery of [$75 million in] money that auditors say was lost as a result of "apparent misfeasance, malfeasance and nonfeasance."

As far as I'm concerned, any opportunity to embarrass and otherwise prod the attention of long-standing members of the Rhode Island political class should be taken. Don't whine about receiving the letter; rail against the fact that one can't operate in Rhode Island government without being tainted by such things.

On the other hand, I'll cede that Savage is correct to complain about this:

In an interview earlier Tuesday, Savage said that he was even more upset after learning that three other former Resource Recovery board members who had initially received demand letters were subsequently taken off the list — Avedisian and former Carcieri aides Jerome Williams and Dante Boffi. He said that his lawyer was rebuffed when he asked Carcieri's legal counsel, Kernan King, to take him off the list.

Kempe said that Williams and Boffi shouldn't have received letters because they served as the governor's designees to the board, and did not have to be confirmed by the Senate. She said that Avedisian was removed from the list because he hadn't served long on the board, and did so after the "bulk" of the alleged wrongdoing.

Rhode Island really needs a wave of leaders who'll offer no political favors whatsoever. You know, representatives wholly on the side of voting taxpayers.

Fox in the Hen House

Justin Katz

I had to switch to music halfway through my commute home, on Friday, because Dan Yorke had Rep. Tim Williamson (D, Coventry, West Warwick) on his show, and my feet were beginning to stick to the pedals from the slime that was seeping from the speakers. A woman called in to challenge Williamson's assertion that he and his peers have done a good job, and the representative slipped into politico-lawyer talk. He let her make the concise message that she was clearly intent on delivering and, at first opportunity, chastised her for interrupting his reply (always note when such folks deploy the sentence, "I didn't interrupt you, did I?"). He then embarked on a rambling spiel raising barely relevant facts, contesting the fact that Rhode Island is really in much trouble at all, and allocating blame everywhere but where it belongs, with the General Assembly.

A quick example: When Dan suggested that the roads bore testament to Rhode Island's problems, Williamson threw out some numbers and explained the reason as dramatic underfunding. Of course, it's the General Assembly that has allocated money that ought to go to infrastructure to everything but, then relying on the trick of floating bonds for the necessities that the body has underfunded.

I raise Williamson's performance from obscurity (Dan hasn't posted the Podcast) because we're beginning to see evidence that nothing short of an extremely unlikely wholesale change in the legislature will be adequate, in the coming election. We've been asking, Don't these people see that there won't be a miracle salvation of Rhode Island's status quo? Maybe they do, maybe they don't, but the salient point is that they just don't care. Whatever the consequence to the legislators' constituents — be they voters or government-dependents or public-sector workers — they, the politicians, will survive, perhaps thrive. Williamson's attitude was the arrogance of the untouchable.

The various news reports and profile pieces published upon Gordon Fox's ascension to House Speaker solidified my conviction that the General Assembly as currently constituted has no intention of making the difficult decisions that will enable the rest of us to pull the state from the tortuous waters in which it is — we are — languishing. How could you conclude otherwise (emphasis added)?

"A Fox speakership will invariably include, but not be limited to, an increase in the state income tax, a lack of constitutionally sound state limitations on illegal immigration, an economic development policy overly influenced by environmental extremists, and of course ... gay marriage," wrote [Rep. Arthur Corvese (D, North Providence)], who has been replaced [as chairman of the House Labor Committee] by Rep. Anastasia Williams, an unpaid member of the AFL-CIO board of directors. "I believe your philosophical stance on major issues is too far to the left for the good of the citizens of the State of Rhode Island."

According to the brief biography presented in the Providence Journal, Fox came of age and built his career as a lawyer while under the wing of the state's power brokers, solidifying his place by choosing back-room deals over his left-wing ideology. We should be discomfited that the state house's progressives support him, of course, but we should be more concerned that his election to the top post signals a retrenchment of the forces that have brought Rhode Island so low.

And I don't see anywhere near the level of targeted angst and anxiety that would indicate that the people of Rhode Island are about to upset the designs of the political class.

February 12, 2010

Not Much Farther to the End

Justin Katz

Giving the increasingly leftward shift of the editorials and Rhode Island's slow grind to a halt, Ed Achorn must find his role on the Providence Journal editorial board frustrating. It makes for some good truth speaking, though:

The voters share the blame, of course. They have rewarded this behavior, blindly returning the same people to office year after year. Indeed, they have punished some who tried to fight for a better Rhode Island.

And so, the educated middle class — the job creators and civic leaders — have been packing up and going, leaving behind a less educated and more easily manipulated electorate.

The end of this story does not look promising.

No, lawmakers and mayors have not been hammered by cruel, blind fate. They have cultivated this crisis, working for years to turn Rhode Island into a state progressively out of whack with most of America.

February 1, 2010

Lobbyist Information Best Digested Near the Vomitorium

Justin Katz

Who would have thought of gigs teaching college courses as political patronage? Yet, it's surprising to see such second incomes so prominent among the special interest salaries drawn by state legislators:

Some — but not all — of this information is available in the disclosure reports filed in recent weeks with the secretary of state's office by that relatively small coterie of lobbyists whose employers acknowledge having given something of value or, perhaps, a consulting fee or salary to a state legislator. ...

At this point, 151 of the lobbyists — and the companies and interest groups that employed them — are delinquent in filing the disclosure reports that were due on Jan. 15. In total, there were 388 legislative lobbyists, 357 entities with lobbyists and 34 lobbying firms registered for the 2009 legislative session.

Depending on the subject matter, teaching a course or two can certainly be a well-remunerated, unarduous task on a par with "consulting." Of course, the prominence of this particular boost to the incomes of members of the General Assembly may recede now that the Rhode Island judiciary has determined that it's legal for legislators to sell their votes.

January 21, 2010

A Quiet Revolt Put Down... Barely

Justin Katz

Judging from a note in my email box, one of Rhode Island's procedural travesties almost went the way of double-Democrat Senators in Massachusetts:

Something unusual happened in the R.I. House of Representatives this week. A proposed critical rule change failed by the thin margin of 30 to 33 despite opposition by the House leaders.

The rule in question, adopted in 2005, has provided an easy way for committees to kill bills without ever actually voting to kill them.

Committees simply vote to “hold bills for further study.” A committee may not have heard testimony on a bill, nor discussed the bill nor even seen it. Yet the motion to hold “for further study” passes (almost always unanimously) and the bill is dead -- unless at a later date the Speaker of the House gives the committee permission to have a real vote.

The motion which came close to passing would have repealed this rule. Then committees would have had to vote for or against bills.

Freshman representative Rod Driver (D, Richmond) who made the motion argues that even without repealing the rule the practice can be changed. “We must just beware of motions containing the words ‘hold for further study’,” he wrote to his colleagues after the vote.

He says some representatives do not realize the deadly effect of voting for such a reasonable-sounding motion.

I'll keep an eye out for the vote tally. This one might be worth some additions to the Legislative Stooge list.

(P.S. --- Is it still appropriate to be calling Rod Driver a "freshman representative"?)

January 3, 2010

Re: Is a New Way for Labor to Limit the Options

Justin Katz

Turning on my home computer after a weekend on the road, I was relieved and concerned to see the legislative bomb that Andrew has spotted. Relieved that we've come across this in time to shine some light. Concerned because I recall glancing at these bills back when they were on the agenda and making the conscious determination that I didn't have time to sort through them for pluses and minuses; the reform movement, in Rhode Island, really has to find some way to finance folks who'll take it upon themselves to comb proposed laws for this sort of thing.

Having reviewed the language, I'd add one more reason that legislators who refuse to let the veto stand should face a heavy political cost. Note this language in the House version:

... School district employees whose collective bargaining agreements expire on or after July 1, 2010 shall, upon expiration of such collective bargaining agreements, receive benefit plans authorized in accordance with chapter 27-72. ...

Upon implementation of the uniform health care benefit plan designs or at such other time as specified herein or as specified in sections 28-9-3.2 and 28-9.4-3, all public school districts and charter schools shall implement one or more benefit plan design(s) authorized in accordance with this chapter.

Not only does this law place any healthcare benefits in the hands of a union-dominated board accountable only to union members, it mandates that schools must offer them. Whether there's a feasible public or private alternative or schools just can't afford healthcare benefits anymore, they'll have to provide them. And not only union schools, but charter schools, as well. Once again, the sinking ship of state reveals the rats trying to shore up all that they can, rather than helping to keep the vessel afloat.

Again, now that it's been vetoed and noticed, any legislator who helps to make this a law should find him or her self out of office at the earliest opportunity.


We can also take this legislation as evidence that reformers must be very, very careful about any budgetary or developmental strategy that calls for consolidation.

December 11, 2009

Business Associates and Classes

Justin Katz

Larry Valencia and John Marion (of Operation Clean Government and Common Cause Rhode Island, respectively) are exactly right about union members' being "business associates" who should be barred from self-dealing (or associate-dealing) as public officials:

First, [the RI Ethics Commission] is not making a change to the code itself, but rather in a "General Commission Advisory," which is a document to provide guidance to those who might be seeking the commission's advice. Second, the opinion of the commission is based on the "business associate" section of the code, and not the "conflict of interest" section. We feel this is a mistake because this situation is clearly not in keeping with either section. A member of a union is clearly a business associate of other local affiliates of that union. This relationship is particularly strong when the parent union sends professional negotiators into multiple jurisdictions. However, it is also a conflict of interest for a public official to negotiate with an organization of which they are a member.

But the two may proceed a step too far with this:

What the commission is doing, however backward its approach, is to begin closing the loophole that allows people to self-deal. That is what the "class exception" is all about. Our groups did not push the commission to begin closing this loophole by targeting union members. We feel it is equally important that anyone serving as a public official should not be allowed to use his or her official capacity to provide benefits to members of the profession he or she is a part of, no matter what that profession is, and no matter if everyone in that profession benefits equally.

My mind turns to the General Assembly's recent debate of a bill that applied a maximum supervisor-to-apprentice ratio for a broad range of construction trades. Among the most vocal opponents was Jay Edwards (D, Tiverton), who works for a construction company in Middletown. From one perspective, Edwards was arguing against an imposition on his industry "class." From another perspective, he's uniquely in a position to understand how silly and wasteful it is to insist that every apprentice bricklayer should be supervised by a journeyman or master, as well as to appreciate the effect on project costs of such regulations.

As we've been discussing with "merit pay," social structures cannot be defined to the finest detail. Even the most well informed gang of citizens shouldn't attempt to contrive a formula into which employers punch some numbers to come up with an "objective" measure of and compensation for meritorious work. Just so, citizens shouldn't strive for a too-strict path down which lawmakers can walk; it will wind up restricting the good and honest and assisting the crooked and devious.

"Business associate" suggests a close relationship. "Class" is far too broad, and frankly, binding classes in ethics regulations would disenfranchise those who wish to determine the course of their government in the areas about which they have the most expertise. The critical remedy for Rhode Island's ills is a healthier political environment, with greater involvement and competition, and layers of "can't do" rules hinder that effort.

Were there more openness and competition, the political system would restrain corruption at the "class" level, because the stain that accompanies dealing to "business associates" would be readily applied more broadly.

November 30, 2009

Roundtable Redux

Justin Katz

Anybody who missed my appearance on WRNI's Political Roundtable on Friday can find the audio here. There were two points that I didn't manage to work into the extremely rapid format:

  1. In response to Scott MacKay's suggestion that the Roman Catholic Church would find its pews empty were it to be as intransigent on every issue as it is on abortion (vis Patrick Kennedy), it ought to be pointed out that few issues are as stark and straightforward as abortion. On one level, there is no room for prudential judgment on the question of whether it's morally proper to deliberately kill children for any reason short of life-and-death. On another level, there isn't really much room to work prudential judgment around abortion. In healthcare, for example, additional funding for abortion will be used for that purpose, but the expanded coverage and "improvements" to the healthcare system that Kennedy (for example) cited as justifying compromise are wholly prospective — mostly suspect.
  2. Regarding Gordon Fox's day out at the ballpark with lobbyists, I would have liked to point out the effect of this whole frame of mind on the citizenry. Fox (to recap) sat in a $120 seat purchased by GTECH lobbyists at a Red Sox game and claims to have paid his way. Whatever the specifics of the case, if a carpenter like me were to be elected to office and err in judgment over a $100 sports ticket, the potential $10,000 fine would be devastating. Another problem with the oppressive effort to pluck all influence peddling from government is the adverse effect of making government a game that only people insulated from the risks can play. Shrinking government would be a better approach.

October 29, 2009

Where Even the Watchdogs Are Corrupt

Justin Katz

WPRI's been promoting its newest Target 12 investigation as "The Biggest Yet"; reporter Tim White sends along some specifics in advance of the official revelation:

CRANSTON – The Rhode Island State Police have opened a criminal investigation following a Target 12 Investigation into government waste.

The investigation, which airs tonight at 11 p.m., reveals four state workers at the Department of Labor and Training at home or on personal errands while on the clock. The investigation implicates the entire "Fraud Unit" at the DLT, a division designed to root out unemployment fraud and phony disability claims.

State police Lt. Colonel Steven O’Donnell says they were approached by state officials after Eyewitness News presented the DLT with their findings. O'Donnell says detectives are looking into possible charges of obtaining money under false pretense.

The four employees, identified by Eyewitness News as Debra Lombardi, Allyn Bosworth, David O'Brien and Claribel Terrero are suspended with pay pending the outcome of both the internal and criminal investigation, according to DLT spokesperson Laura Hart.

Their supervisor, Katherine Catanzaro has temporarily been reassigned, Hart says.

Target 12 obtained time sheets and itineraries of the fraud investigators that show they were not only on the clock when they were at home or on errands, but the itineraries reveal they claimed to be out on an investigation at the time.

On Sunday, I wondered whether it's possible to recycle something so thoroughly rotten as the Rhode Island government. When even the people assigned to seek out fraud are behaving fraudulently, the wondering may cease; tear the whole thing down and start again.

Perpetual Contract: Making a Spark in a Gunpowder Factory

Justin Katz

Andrew's news might explain the lack of the usual angst from the state's unionists over legislative assurances that binding arbitration is dead, for the time being: The unions' first choice — perpetual contracts — is alive and well. You'll recall that the deadly bill, S0713, passed the Senate and the House Labor Committee and then mysteriously disappeared during the time of tea parties and ramping up town hall anger.

Binding arbitration grew in it's place, of course, and wouldn't it explain a lot of strange behavior from the General Assembly and the unionists, especially those associated with the National Education Association, if the pair of bills are a connivance to inflate an over-sized union life-raft as the ship of state goes down? Get everybody to react to binding arbitration and then send in the more vicious animal through the back door. Ed Achorn's column on binding arbitration reads even more darkly in this new context:

Many Rhode Islanders, suffering from "learned helplessness" and biding their time until they too can join the great middle-class migration from the state, have given up whimsical notions that legislators here would ever serve the public interest. In their view, the politicians will never be happy until the sign that adorns Dante's Inferno is placed along all roads and highways leading into the state: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."

If this legislative ghoul does come to life, this week, the backlash should be quadruple what it would have been against binding arbitration: not only based on the demerits, but also in reaction to the deception.

October 25, 2009

Send the State to the Dump and Rebuild

Justin Katz

Some explanation may lie with the crappy discount coffee that I bought in a pinch at CVS, Friday night. I'd forgotten to pick up my usual brew on the way home, and because the cold snap and the replacement of heavy winter socks in my work-clothes dresser bring the threat of rapid defeat in my battle against athlete's foot, I was headed to the pharmacy, anyway. Difficulty walking comes at a steep price, for a carpenter, so financial considerations no longer justify forgoing the weapon of prescription cream, as I have for some months. In other words, since I was splurging for medicine, I thought to compensate by scrimping on addiction.

A mild bug may also be to blame, but inasmuch as I've no other symptoms of illness, the bad-tasting coffee certainly comes under suspicion for my feeling of mild disorientation — as if I'd spent the previous night drinking alcohol in an amount just shy of that which produces a hangover.

Some explanation must also derive from this week's payment of the bills, or (more accurately) non-payment of the bills. It looks like some additional conveniences, such as cell-phone Internet access, will have to give way, this week, blog-efforts notwithstanding. The mortgage payment hovers just out of reach, and the fact that it's missed the arbitrary deadline means that roughly three hours of my hard-earned pay will evaporate in fees again this month. Fortunately, I've a jar full of pennies from which to draw resources for a stamp to send an obligatory auto insurance payment.

Which all contributes to my utter lack of sympathy for anybody associated with the story of Nathan Hannon, who, by Mike Stanton's telling in the Providence Journal, is another dirt-bag who's been bilking the state by not doing the work that he'd claimed to be doing as (get this) a $45,000-per-year "education coordinator" for the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation. He was a teacher at the dump, who appears to have taken credit for off-site educational presentations that never happened:

Of 27 instances in which Hannon filed paperwork for mileage reimbursement, The Journal could only confirm three trips: he went to the Blackstone Valley Charter School in June and West Warwick High School in July and dropped off educational materials to a woman affiliated with the South Providence Youth Ministries in June.

But he didn't go to the South Providence Youth Ministries for presentations in July and August, as he reported, officials there say. Those were among at least 17 appointments that people say didn't happen. At the remaining seven places, two could not be reached and the others said they could not confirm or did not recall his visiting.

What Hannon might have done to accumulate the mileage for which he submitted reimbursement claims is an open question. Perhaps his significant other, "former [RI] senator and top Senate aide who is now a Rhode Island traffic-court judge" David Cruise has some idea. (According to the judiciary's Web site, by the way, Cruise's actual title is "administrative magistrate," which means that his path to a six-figure job in the judiciary was different than that taken by a judge; then– Chief Justice Frank "Chiefy" Williams nominated the lifelong political actor to the court, and the Senate confirmed him.) Perhaps Senate Majority Leader Daniel Connors — who walked a mile and a half to the home of Hannon and Cruise after crashing his brother's car in the middle of the night after a fundraiser, back in 2004 — could make inquiry now that his schedule is clear of the string-pulling that he appears to have been doing behind the scenes to ensure that Hannon is eligible for unemployment payments.

What is less and less in question is whether it's worthwhile for residents to continue supporting a government structure that makes of the state a playground for political insiders. Somehow, our discount-brand representatives leave the rest of us feeling disoriented and hung over while they pass around the cup of patronage.

When the state gets around to hiring another garbage education director, we can ask him or her whether it's possible to recycle that which is thoroughly rotten, but it seems to me that we should just throw the government in the trash and start from scratch.

October 21, 2009

Rhode Island Sleaze Brings Left and Right Together

Justin Katz

You know the Rhode Island way of doing government is sickly when the habits and practices of elected officials drive the political left and right so close as to leave no space whatsoever between them. Witness Bob Kerr's suggestion that the state replace its current system of selecting its Speaker of the House through back-room schmoozing and deal making with a tour of the state's hardships, which would conclude as follows:

When they are done, when they get off the bus back in Providence after looking into the faces of those who pay the hard price, they will be asked why it all happened.

And the one who keeps the straightest face while saying "It's the governor's fault" will be the new speaker.

For now, I'll just renew my call for some legislator to use the speaker fight as an opportunity to showboat. Even if I don't agree with the upstart's policies, it would at least provide some reason for mild, abstract hope to see a politician actually "playing politics" with the goal of getting a message out.

Of course, the hope would be even greater were that message delivered from the political right (which is to say, were the message correct). How about it, Trillo, Watson, Newberry, Ehrhardt? The process (the entire government) is a joke, anyway; if all you accomplish is to emphasize that fact, you'd have done the state a service.

October 12, 2009

An Association of Associates

Justin Katz

I've procured a copy of the proposed change in the Ethics Commission's general advisory pertaining to union members' voting, as elected officials, on contracts and such that affect other locals of their unions (PDF). There's nothing in it that will surprise those who've been following along, and frankly, with the exception of replacing "adequate" with "expanding," it's hard to argue with this:

Individual labor union members pay dues to the local bargaining unit of which they are a member, a portion of which is retained by that local unit, with some other portion ordinarily flowing up to the statewide and, when applicable, nationwide, umbrella organizations. While each local bargaining unit and statewide organization is structured and functions somewhat differently, it is generally the case that one of the primary missions of any given union is to secure adequate compensation and benefits for its membership; this being the case, we opine that an individual dues-paying member of any given local bargaining unit is a business associate, as that term is defined by R.I. Gen. Laws section 36-14-2(3), of both the local bargaining unit to which the individual pays dues and the statewide entity to which a portion of those dues flow. What this means in practical terms is that when a duly-authorized representative of a local bargaining unit or its statewide affiliate is representing the local or statewide entity before a person subject to the Code who is also a member of that local or the statewide umbrella entity, the person subject to the Code must recuse from taking official action in accordance with R.I. Gen. Laws sections 36-14-5(f) and 6.

Closing any of these corruption loopholes (not unlike the prostitution loophole) that we're able will only benefit the state. Of course, it's probably too little, too late to prevent the state's financial collapse.

October 8, 2009

A Little Less Tilt on the Union Playing Field

Justin Katz

Perhaps there is hope that the winds are changing (too slowly, of course) in Providence Journal reporter Steve Peoples' story on the RI Ethics Commission's movement toward a decision that would expand the prohibitions against union members' participation, as public officials, in matters pertaining to other locals under the same umbrella organizations. A 2008 advisory opinion from the Commission provides a good example:

The Petitioner, Vice Chairperson of the Narragansett School Committee, a municipal elected position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether she may participate in subcommittee negotiations with the bargaining unit of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Education Association, to negotiate the Narragansett teachers’ union contract, given that she is a member of the Professional Staff Association at the Community College of Rhode Island, which is also represented by the National Education Association.

Heretofore, in the consensus view of 31 opinions since 1995, according to RI Ethics Commission staff lawyer Esme DeVault, the answer has been "go ahead," but would become, under the proposed change, "better not." Hopefully, the guardians of Rhode Island's public trust have caught on that unions are organizational structures, not vague clubs entailing mutual interests. Imagine the outcry from the usual suspects with union affiliations if a local manager of (say) a CVS were to involve himself as a public official in the affairs of a different CVS store in his hometown.

One option for resolving conflicts of interest that ought to be on the table, but isn't, is for those public officials to quit their unions without losing their jobs. Rhode Island is like one of those games in which two knobs tilt a maze through which the player must work a marble, only the knobs only change the degree to which the board tilts toward the union hole — never away.

September 30, 2009

Erik Wallin: The Cancer That Is Corruption

Engaged Citizen

The cancer that is corruption continues to devour our state. Most recently, the Governor's audit shed light on $75 million of willfully mismanaged taxpayer dollars for insider deals, extravagant bonuses, over-paying, and a variety of other corrupt actions. Taking a step back from these despicable practices for just a moment, one can look at the bigger problem. The Governor ordered this audit by the state's Bureau of Audits almost one year ago, and the audit covered a time period of between 1999 and 2007. It is reasonable to assume that if an investigation went back even further then more of this insider dealing and purposeful mismanagement would be found. What Rhode Islanders can see from these actions at the landfill is inaction from the state's highest elected official responsible for enforcing our laws, the Attorney General.

What we know and do not know is a telling example of the state of affairs. There is little question that laws were broken, and no one can disagree that if charges were brought at the time these illegal acts occurred, or sometime thereafter, then those responsible would be prosecuted. Was any investigation done at any point prior to the Governor's audit by the Attorney General? After the Governor ordered his audit, the Attorney General appointed one prosecutor to assist the State Police and Bureau of Audits with the investigation. This individual also has the responsibility of prosecuting white collar crimes in Rhode Island. Regardless of the talents of this single prosecutor, given what was at stake, was it fair to that person or Rhode Islanders to dedicate so little resources? Is it possible this corruption occurred under the nose of the Attorney General and he had no idea? Rhode Islanders are entitled to answers rather than a statement that no prosecution of anyone involved in this fleecing of taxpayer dollars will occur.

Rhode Islanders deserve an Attorney General who actively seeks out and prosecutes the corruption that litters our state — not just at the landfill but statewide. Public corruption must be a top priority of the Attorney General and the office. No longer can the responsibility for investigating and prosecuting public corruption at the state or municipal level be abdicated to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Governor or to a single prosecutor. Being committed to fighting corruption requires establishing an Attorney General's Public Corruption Task Force, staffed with seasoned prosecutors, investigators and a forensic auditor. The moment corruption is suspected, a corruption task force should immediately initiate an investigation so that those who betray the public trust can no longer hide behind the statute of limitations and escape accountability. An Attorney General 24-hr corruption hotline must be established so that Rhode Islanders can provide information and/or tips. Those who provide information on public corruption, as well as the members of the Attorney General's Public Corruption Task Force, must have confidence that the Attorney General has the integrity and courage to back them, regardless of where and to whom the trail of corruption leads.

Taking the offensive against those who betray the public trust will not only put the corrupt behind bars, but will demonstrate to businesses and all others that we will no longer sit on the sidelines while the future of our State is stolen by the powerful and corrupt insiders. It is time we stand up together and put them on warning that their days are numbered.

Erik Wallin is an attorney in Wakefield, RI, and the presumed Republican candidate for the office of Attorney General in 2010.

September 18, 2009

Common Ethics in Rhode Island

Justin Katz

In the extended entry, I've posted the entire Common Cause Rhode Island panel discussion about the RI Ethics Commission and its recent diminution by the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

For those who can't take the shoe-string aesthetics, my understanding is that Operation Clean Government will be posting a more professional video on its Web site at some point in the near future (as will Common Cause).

Continue reading "Common Ethics in Rhode Island"

September 16, 2009

Ethics in the Evening

Justin Katz

Attending an event on the Brown campus, a blogger knows that he's attending an event on the Brown campus. Entirely unaccountable suit jackets . Very professorial-looking people. (I hope nobody breaks into my van after the sun goes down.) Also, the seats have folding desktops. When I was a kid...

I'm not sure whether this Common Cause RI panel on the future of the Ethics Commission will lend itself to liveblogging, but if I have an wry... or insightful... comments, I'll be sure to share them.

7:08 p.m.

Probably about 50 people here. I called ahead back when I first heard of this event. There's seating for another 100 people or so, and given the importance of the topic, events such as this really ought to be packed. Ensuring that they are might be a worthwhile sideline for tea-party goers.

Just sayin'... and it's not just a plea for a higher percentage of suit-jacket-less audience members.

7:15 p.m.

Ethics Commission attorney Jason Gramitt is explaining the background, and he just explained that straight-out bribery remains illegal. A legislator cannot take money explicitly for an official act. The importance of the Ethics Commission (Gramitt explained) is that it addresses ethical violations that aren't so clear cut. In a sense, the commission goes after implied bribery. Or used to.

7:32 p.m.

Ethics Commission Chairwoman Barbara Binder, following ACLU lawyer Mark Freel's argument that the Speech in Debate Clause is important to preserve, pointed out how obvious it is that the law gives the Ethics Commission authority over the only substantive practice of legislators.

She also tied the judges' decision to privilege Speech in Debate with the whole notion that now-Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor would bring a specific perspective to her rulings.

7:43 p.m.

One opinion: Too many lawyers on the panel, although that might speak to the intentions of the event. A politician and an analyst/advocate/commentator would make things more interesting and pick up threads where lawyers prefer not to dare to tread — e.g., what do we do from here.

7:48 p.m.

Mr. Freel makes a reasonable point, though, about following the procedure if one wishes to amend the state's constitution, rather than just assuming that legislation accomplished it implicitly.

7:54 p.m.

Actually, we've moved on to the "what to do from here" segment. Common Cause's John Marion (not a lawyer) is describing a proposed amendment to the state's constitution that would empower the Ethics Commission — and just the Ethics Commission — to overcome the speech in debate clause.

8:02 p.m.

Very odd. RI Senate Parliamentarian John Roney, amidst various digs at the Ethics Commission and its lawyers just challenged the validity of Barbara Binder's appointment to the office, given a lack of advice and consent from the legislature. He's also arguing that further empowering the Ethics Commission is contrary to ideas of separation of powers.

Why redirect from the topic of the evening? Curious. The politics never end, I suppose.

8:08 p.m.

Sometimes lawyers proceed with the arguments in such a way that an obvious point appears to be irrelevant. The point of separation of powers is not that each branch is protected from the others, but that each branch performs duties appropriate to its role in government. The Ethics Commission may be an executive-branch office, but the question vis separation is whether it is performing a legislative function. It is not. Arguably, it is performing a judicial function, but it is created within the state constitution to do what it does.

8:14 p.m.

Freel just argued that there is also a "court of public opinion" and such other forms of super-legal regulation. It's important not to forget (especially in Rhode Island) that it often takes an Ethics Commission suit to spur public opinion.

8:26 p.m.

You know, you never see any interesting ties at these events. Is paisley verboten? If I ever join such a panel... and wear a tie... I'll break with tradition.

8:32 p.m.

Event Moderator and Brown Professor of Public Policy (and Ethics Commission member) Ross Cheit closed the meeting with an expression of gratitude that the panel and audience could break with the zeitgeist and conduct a civil discussion. People are challenging the notion of civility in such forums, he claimed. Nonsense. People are challenging the civility owed to elected government officials simply because they are government officials.

Senator Roney made a point of bringing the "you lie" controversy into the discussion, and the allusion is entirely inapplicable. This was an academic forum. A panel discussion of experts. The town halls have been constituent events hosted by politicians for political purposes. President Obama turned his healthcare speech into a political opportunity to attack his opposition.

Am I crazy to see a bit of snobbery in the peculiar self congratulations, tonight?

September 12, 2009

Re: A Whiff of Sanity

Justin Katz

The question of public pensions can lead quickly to basic premises. Consider a comment from Joe Bernstein:

DISCLAIMER:I am a friend of Barney Prignano and worked in the SIB squad from 1990-94 when he supervised that group. I was one of two Federal agents assigned there.

Forget who lost their pension here and think about the dangerous precedent it sets.

Now a person who retires can be brought before the Retirement Board at a subsequent time and be accused of "dishonorable" service and lose their pension. Based on what? You tell me. A conviction is no longer the standard.

Can't anyone here who's gloating understand how this can be used by vindictive politicians to go after people they didn't like and if not revoke their pensions, at least put them through legal expense and misery?

In the case of the Parks Dept. employee I agree with the decision because even though nolo/probation on a felony is not a conviction in RI, the Federal courts have held that it can be used as a conviction in federal proceedings. The case was a RI one, US vs.Bustamante where Judge Pettine was reversed by the First Circuit. It involved ATF charging a man with firearms possession by a convicted felon. Oscar Bustamante couldn't appeal it to SCOTUS because he died soon after the decision (gunshot wound). We in the INS used the decision to arrest and deport hundreds of permanent residents.The first arrest pursuant to the decision: Pedro Bustamante, Oscar's brother. Nice guy - he shot up an apartment house with a 45 ACP carbine, barely missing some nuns and a sleeping infant. It was a pleasure to "knock"on his door.

Note that Joe is willing to admit proof of misconduct that falls short of a job-related conviction, which is precisely in line with my stated opinion. But he goes farther, arguing that, because of their subservience to political process, public-sector employees' pensions should be considered, essentially, a right revocable only in conjunction with prosecutable crimes. Like private-sector employees (who rarely receive pensions in the first place, anymore) public-sector employees must abide by the rules that their employers establish, within the law, of course, but the latter also may utilize the political process to make the organizations for which they work subservient to them.

Joe wants it both ways: It is because government "service" is open to the political process that it is open to the manipulations and disregard of market forces that have granted public sector employees such comparably fantastic remuneration. As a matter of fairness, it cannot also be that those politically procured gains are protected from the political process when it brings less friendly managers into the equation.

Look, no pensioner should be barred from legal recourse against arbitrary actions by a pension board. Beyond that, one would hope that capricious political appointees or elected officials would open themselves to attack from political opposition and electors on that basis.

September 9, 2009

A Monopoly of Power

Justin Katz

As we wait for the General Assembly to make an appearance on the local governance scene — maybe helping, you know, to figure out from where tens of millions of dollars are supposed to come #&151; the pause offers opportunity to revive a metaphor articulated by Larry Valencia, Operation Clean Government, back in July:

Our legislators, and especially our legislative leaders, Speaker William Murphy, Majority Leader Gordon Fox, and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, already have the best property cards and money.

With their onerous procedural rules and Democratic supermajorities, they already own Boardwalk. They have shiny red hotels, enough to shame Donald Trump. They don't need more help controlling this game.

The average Rhode Island citizen is the one who needs help. He or she slumps forlornly on Baltic Avenue, in a dull green house, with foreclosed neighbors on Mediterranean. Average Rhode Islanders need a cash infusion from the bank, a railroad or two, or an emergency loan from Rich Uncle Moneybags (the dude with the monocle).

This lopsided game explains why so many good government ideas — from legislation creating an inspector general's office, to removing the "master lever" option from voting ballots, or creating a more informative voter handbook — are trapped in procedural limbo.

A Whiff of Sanity Amidst the State's Corruption

Justin Katz

It may be limited in scope, but at least proof of conduct that enables the reduction or rescindment doesn't have to be so egregious that it stands up as a crime in a court of law:

An employee of the City of Providence does not have to be convicted of a job-related crime to lose his or her pension, a Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday.

Judge Michael A. Silverstein decided several legal issues regarding five pension-revocation cases, including those of former Police Chief Urbano Prignano Jr. and former Capt. John J. Ryan, and a former office manager in the city Parks Department, Kathleen M. Parsons. ...

A municipal ordinance requires that an employee render "honorable service" as a prerequisite for a pension and further requires that if an employee is convicted of a job-related crime, the pension shall be reduced or revoked. Silverstein said, in effect, that those two requirements function independently of one another.

Just about anything that will contribute motivation for ethical conduct is good, at this point. A pension is an award above and beyond one's rights as a citizen.

August 30, 2009

An Application of the Inside Dealing Sniff Test

Justin Katz

And so the method goes: After a nationwide search for a green energy company to utilize as-yet unsecured federal grants... Johnston and North Providence signed agreements with RI Representative Peter Palumbo (D., Cranston):

[Johnston Mayor Joseph] Polisena and [North Providence Council President Joseph] Burchfield signed the agreements with Palumbo's company, which was incorporated in March, without knowing how much the projects would cost and without a comprehensive analysis of other ways their towns might use federal stimulus money to save energy. ...

In North Providence, Burchfield signed the agreement with Palumbo’s company on June 2. He did not inform the Town Council beforehand and more than a month later, Mayor Charles A. Lombardi was not aware of the agreement.

So what do you think? Does it pass?

August 25, 2009

The Rhode Island Lack-of-Blame Game

Justin Katz

Whether by ignorance or deceit, there's a curious omission from the Providence Journal's coverage of Governor Carcieri's plan to bring the state government's budget out of deficit. It's not in the summary article by Cynthia Needham and Katherine Gregg. It's not in the article conveying state workers' anger, by Richard Dujardin. And at best, it receives a vague allusion in Barbara Polichetti's article about municipal mayors/managers' anger, when East Providence Mayor Joseph Larisa says, "We understand why this is being imposed."

Inasmuch as the alerts of Dan Yorke and Matt Allen are broadcast fleetingly over the radio, one has to dig deep into the comments section of the middle link, above, to find it stated by somebody calling him or her self TPaine:

If the General Assembly continues to be spineless cowards, then it is up to the governor to get the budget in line. Since the General Assembly removed the Governor's power to remove items from the budget (something 38 OTHER governors have) last decade, the tools at his disposal are blunt and heavy. Blame the General Assembly that you all elected. You reap what you sow.

So far, five out of six people have given the comment a thumbs down.

The bottom line is that the General Assembly handed Carcieri the requirement to find some $68 million in "unspecified cuts." The governor's authority to actually make cuts has a limited scope, while the Democrats in the GA have the entirety of state expenditures at their disposal. The gnashing of teeth that we're hearing, today, is orchestrated and loosely conducted by a design that directs heat away from the den of Rhode Island's corruption. With another $65 million that apparently must be found to make up for the final deficit of the last budget year, that heat is reaching furious temperatures.

In conversation after the recent picnic hosted by the Rhode Island Republican Assembly, I half-joked that the RIGOP should forswear all state-level races in the next election cycle. Focus resources at the national and municipal levels, but let the Democrats own the hollow center. Based on the electoral results, last time around, the broad failure of the state's mainstream media to explore beyond the scripted political outline, and the absence of substantial healthy skepticism among the general public, one can only prescribe an emulation of God's lesson for Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16:43: "Because you did not remember what happened when you were a girl, but enraged me with all these things, therefore in return I am bringing down your conduct upon your head."

When a structure is rotted to its very foundation and the owner refuses any expense beyond minimal cosmetics, the only remaining possibility is to allow its collapse, clear the rubble, and rebuild something new.

August 23, 2009

And Then There Are the Judgeships

Justin Katz

Per Anchor Rising's rule of thumb for whether inside connections should disqualify one from receiving a particular appointment: After an exhaustive nationwide search, the governor has nominated... his chief of staff to fill a Superior Court opening. I'd say the nomination doesn't pass the test.

Again, I'm sympathetic to the arguments that people who've been in government and law for years know the ropes and that familiarity is a valid consideration for nominations, but at this point, enough damage is done to Rhode Island by the perception and reality that the government is a self-rewarding spoils system that it outweighs these benefits. Some might suggest that some positions would be more difficult to fill if accepting them foreclosed other possibilities in the future, but such are the decisions of life.

Beneath the Bright White Veil, the RI Way

Justin Katz

And this is the sound of General Treasurer Frank Caprio breaking the glass rod that made him appear to be arm's length from the Rhode Island way of politics:

He acknowledged the perception of a conflict with donations from eight out-of-state firms that specialize in class-action securities lawsuits.

The national litigation firm Grant & Eisenhofer is one example.

In June, the firm became the lead counsel in a class-action securities suit brought by Rhode Island against Security Capital Assurance Ltd., which allegedly reported inflated income that ultimately cost investors across the country millions.

The case, according to terms released by the treasurer’s office, could produce legal fees as high as $50 million if the suit is successful. Three months before being named lead counsel, four Grant & Eisenhofer employees, who list Delaware and New York addresses, made combined donations of $4,000 to Caprio's campaign.

The treasurer returned those contributions Tuesday, in addition to donations from more than 50 individuals employed by securities-monitoring firms dating more than two years in some cases, according to a spreadsheet and copies of checks provided by the treasurer’s staff. The decision came several days into a Journal inquiry of Caprio’s political fundraising and hiring decisions.

Mr. Caprio is, however, keeping similarly situated donations from Rhode Islanders. Blame the size of the state, argue that elected officials shouldn't be afraid to consider personal comfort with contractors when seeking to expend public dollars, and I'll likely agree with you. But there's something disconcerting about this dynamic:

"We're talking about these local firms, individuals that have known me, have supported me for many years, in some instances, and people that I know well and I'm proud to have their support," said Caprio.

Frankly, I'm not sure what the remedy should be, but it's difficult to have faith in a government when it is characteristic for old pals to donate to their friends' campaigns and then reap professional rewards when they win.

August 7, 2009

Re: Board of Elections Dismisses Lynch Complaint

Justin Katz

Few folks probably pay much attention to the campaign finance controversies that pop up from time to time, and it's difficult to get riled up about numbers so small. That presumes, of course, that the rules and penalties are applied equally; otherwise, minor errors and infractions are suggestive of the more systematic corruption that we all know to be prominent in this state. I know of candidates for such positions as small-town budget committee who've made errors on campaign finance reports, who've updated their filings, and who've still had to pay their fines. That an attorney general who's running for the office of governor should get a stern look and a pat on the coiffed head suggests that there are two sets of rules in Rhode Island politics:

In dismissing the allegations, elections officials concluded that while Lynch had in fact violated state statute by labeling thousands of dollars in campaign expenses as "petty cash," his actions did not appear deliberate. ...

"Mistakes were made, but again, I do not believe it was deliberate," said Richard Thornton, the Board of Elections' director of campaign finance, whose advice the board ultimately followed. "I think a warning is warranted. I do not believe however that a fine is necessary."

Thornton said elections officials spotted the problems when the reports were first filed, but failed to follow through with the candidate. Board of Elections Executive Director Robert Kando said the personnel responsible for that oversight have been reprimanded.

Immediately following Thornton's presentation of his findings Thursday, the Board voted to dismiss the complaint with no discussion, despite objections from a GOP lawyer who asked why he was not allowed to crossexamine Thornton about those conclusions.

Think about that: Even the most airy spin in Patrick Lynch's favor suggests that the attorney general of the state of Rhode Island was insufficiently aware of the law to comply with it. If the Spider-Man quoting politician had the integrity that voters ought to demand of candidates, he'd volunteer to pay the fines so as to affirm the principle that we're all equal participants in an unbiased system. The Republican Party is entirely correct about the lesson for political insiders and their allies:

Going forward, the GOP warns the decision not to issue fines for Lynch's violations could set a problematic precedent. In a letter to the Board of Elections, party lawyer Steven Frias wrote that it "would send a message to the public and all who file campaign-finance reports with the Board that filers can ignore the disclosure requirements of the law, wait for a complaint to be filed, and then file an amended report without suffering any consequences."

The lesson for Rhode Islanders who might be considering participation in the political process is that outsiders face an obstacle course of thorns designed to discourage them. (Time would be better spent staying home and adjusting the color settings on the flat-screen TV.)

Kudos, by the way, to Chairman Gio Ciccione and the Republicans for leveraging this objectively minor issue to illustrate why partisan hegemony is unhealthy.

July 10, 2009

The Pervasive Structure of Rhode Island Corruption

Justin Katz

It would be the work of a lifetime of academic study to unravel the thread, but I've been increasingly impressed (in a bad way) with the intricacies of Rhode Island's structural corruption. It's as if certain principles of the culture filter throughout local society to create an organic network whose instinctual task is to create little pools of power and influence that political parasites can siphon and share.

Take, for example, local zoning regulations. A busy-body factor comes into play, as does a back-roads totalitarianism that seeks to freeze a town in time, but the effect of stringent permitting and zoning codes is to force individual approval (variances) of projects. When every change to one's property must be made "legal, non-conforming," a local board gains the power of arbitrary judgment; the projects are already contrary to the law, so the legal guidelines for arguing in their favor are limited, and the aesthetic and political guidelines are vague. It behooves residents, therefore, to have influential people around town think kindly of them, and it creates an advantage for, say, building contractors who have conspicuous success rates acquiring variances for their clients.

This story reeks of the insidious structure:

A Town Council proposal to expand the governing board of the Johnston Housing Authority from five members to seven has hit a roadblock in the General Assembly, where a key lawmaker says it appears the move is meant to "target someone" in a political squabble.

Sen. John J. Tassoni Jr., D-Smithfield, who heads the Senate Committee on Housing and Municipal Government, on Thursday, June 25, refused to release the enabling legislation for a floor vote. The bill was introduced by Rep. Deborah Fellela, a Johnston Democrat — whose husband, Henry, swore at Tassoni after the chairman shelved her legislation.

"It's quite obvious after what I went through on Thursday that there's a vendetta in Johnston and I'm not going to be part of it," said Tassoni. He declined to say who might be the "target" of the legislation.

Obviously, Tassoni's declaration that he doesn't want "to be a part" of a "vendetta" in a town that he does not represent is nonsense. First of all, the way for him to have stayed out of the squabble would have been to step back from the proposal and let it move to a vote; by blocking it, he's made his action much more intrinsic to the outcome. More significantly, it makes for an incoherent thought to call the broadening of power a "vendetta" — whereas, shrinking the board would push somebody out — unless one is protecting the influence of an individual member and sees that heightened power as a right.

The question is, which of the Housing Authority's commissioners wields his or her influence in such a way that a state senator from another town has an interest in girding it? And what reciprocity might there be?

Don't Bind Elected Unionists; Force Them Out

Justin Katz

Last night, Matt Allen made the point that Congressman Patrick Kennedy's perpetual reelection makes his antics most profoundly an indictment of the voters who keep sending him back to Washington. The same is true of most corruption at the state and local levels, and I'm not sure, therefore, whether the proper route to reform is to leverage an unelected government panel, the Ethics Commission, to build low barriers around school committee members who are also teachers' union members in another town:

Groups such as Operation Clean Government and Common Cause Rhode Island argue that the rules should be tightened, because how public officials act on union matters in their communities could affect their own unions. Labor contracts in one town are often cited in negotiations in another town. And local unions are often affiliated with the same statewide union.

Defenders of the status quo argue that the current ethics rules are sufficient. The Ethics Commission has held repeatedly that there is no financial or business relationship between a public official who belongs to a union in another town and a union negotiator.

Realistically, the single largest task of any school committee member is to vote up or down on negotiated contracts, so removing the ability to make that vote effectively denudes an elected official. Anything short of disallowing that vote — or even disallowing the candidacy — places an Ethics Commission stamp of approval on the problem itself. That, I must admit, puts me in agreement with a crowd with which I'm typically at odds:

George Nee, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, countered that further restrictions would unfairly limit a public official’s ability to participate in the democratic process. Voters are aware of the backgrounds of the people they elect, he said. That position was echoed by lawyer Robert Mann, who spoke on behalf of Working Rhode Island, a coalition of labor organizations.

The tasks before those of us who see the problems are to educate the public and to move preferred candidates into office. It's a long, slow process — and, given the emigration of some of our natural allies, not at all a sure thing — but people are beginning to awaken to the damage that's been done. Having identified the methods by which the unions and others have done that damage, our best use of that information would be to inspire opposition and motivated participation — at the local level, first, and then, with the advantage of a statewide farm team, at the state and then national levels.

Otherwise, it's not inconceivable that we may find our own methods of instituting constraint through the Ethics Commission binding our own hands in the future.

July 8, 2009

Amdending the Ethics Amendment

Carroll Andrew Morse

Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri (via Edward Fitzpatrick's column in Sunday's Projo), Woonsocket Call columnist Jim Baron, and Operation Clean Government Vice-President Robert Benson, amongst many others, support amending the State Constitution to restore the jurisdiction of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission to its intended scope, which would include the official acts of state legislators.

State Representatives David Segal (D-Providence), Edith Ajello (D-Providence), Rod Driver (D-Charlestown/Exeter/Richmond), Chris Fierro (D-Woonsocket), and Brian Newberry (R-Burrillville/North Smithfield) already have a proposal for such an Amendment pending in the current legislative session, which would add (after voter approval) the bolded text to Article III, section 8 of the Rhode Island Constitution…

The general assembly shall establish an independent non-partisan ethics commission which shall adopt a code of ethics including, but not limited to, provisions on conflicts of interest, confidential information, use of position, contracts with government agencies and financial disclosure. Notwithstanding the provisions of Article VI, Section 5 of this Constitution, all elected and appointed officials and employees of state and local government, of boards, commissions and agencies shall be subject to the code of ethics. The ethics commission shall have the authority to investigate violations of the code of ethics and to impose penalties, as provided by law; and the commission shall have the power to remove from office officials who are not subject to impeachment.
Article VI, section 5 contains the Rhode Island Constitution's speech-in-debate immunity clause.

Baron and Benson both endorse this amendment specifically, though Fitzpatrick's column cites one expert who is concerned that the proposed language still might not be strong enough to allow the Ethics Amdenment's original scope and intent to survive another post-ratification judicial veto. However, at first glace, the language does seem to address the Court's stated reasons for narrowing the Ethics Commission's reach to less than what it was understood to be at the time it was created. The amendment specifically mentions the section of the Constitution containing the speech-in-debate clause that is supposedly being modified, addressing the concern that Constitutional protections cannot be repealed, unless it is directly stated that they are. Also, the new amendment would be approved without the rest of the Constitution being re-approved at the same time, doing away with the Court's concern that when separate constitutional provisions undergo simultaneous approval, speech-in-debate immunity obviously trumps all other considerations (hey, it's the state Supreme Court's reasoning, not mine).

Speaker of the House William Murphy, according to Fitzpatrick's column, has so-far been cool to the idea of letting this amendment work its way through the process -- raising the question of what the Speaker thinks the function of the legislature is, if it is not to create a system of laws that express the will of the people.

July 2, 2009

Corruption and Dollars

Justin Katz

Andrew and Matt spoke of "speech in debate" and political corruption in Rhode Island Matt Allen Show, as well as Andrew's posts (1 and 2) on town taxation. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

June 30, 2009

RI Supreme Court to the People of Rhode Island: We Think Legislative Immunity Needs to be Broader Than You Realize, So We're Going to Ditch the Plain Meaning of that Constitutional Amendment You Passed

Carroll Andrew Morse

In the Rhode Island Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Irons v. RI Ethics Commission, three justices of the Rhode Island Supreme Court defied very clear precedent in order to replace the plain meaning of the state Constitution with their own view of what the law regarding the ethical conduct of legislators should be, based on a belief that legislators should have immunity for "core legislative acts" that is more broad than what the people of Rhode Island are willing to provide. What had been specified by the people via Constitutional Amendment has thus been scaled back, for not being in harmony with what the judiciary thinks is best.

Yesterday's ruling ignored the fact that the United States Supreme Court had repeatedly and explicitly declined to extend legislative immunity to laws specifically intended to regulate legislative behavior prior to the ratification of the Rhode Island Ethics Amendment in 1986, in the 1966 case of United States v. Johnson

We expressly leave open for consideration when the case arises a prosecution which, though possibly entailing inquiry into legislative acts or motivations, is founded upon a narrowly drawn statute passed by Congress in the exercise of its legislative power to regulate the conduct of its members.
...and in the 1972 case of United States v. Brewster
The [Johnson] opinion specifically left open the question of a prosecution which, though possibly entailing some reference to legislative acts, is founded upon a "narrowly drawn" statute passed by Congress in the exercise of its power to regulate its Members' conduct.
...both of which were used to define the scope of legislative immunity in Rhode Island law (via the 1984 case of Holmes v. Farmer).

It is an affront to the principles of self-government and the rule of law for judges to invalidate a Constitutional Amendment that filled an ambiguous area of Constitutional law, based on judges' granting themselves the power to extend previous court rulings beyond their original scope and asserting that that power outranks the actual amending of the Constitution by the people.

Adding insult to injury, the Court's explanation of its judge-manufactured rules that, for the moment, trump the plain meaning of the State Constitution is not coherent. The Court claims that legislators are not really immune from violating the Code of Ethics -- except when they are…

We wish to stress in the strongest possible terms, however, that it in no way grants a legislator the right to transgress the Code of Ethics or any other law. Legislators are held accountable for violations of the Code of Ethics, and they are not immune for actions which violate that code. The only exceptions are those in which the speech in debate clause of the constitution is implicated. The immunity afforded merely precludes the Ethics Commission from prosecuting within a narrow class of core legislative acts.
To understand the imprecision of the reasoning above, consider a hypothetical legislator who holds a position on the House or Senate Finance Committee that allows him or her control the flow of legislation. Suppose this legislator comes out and says "I'm not going to ever vote for tax deals with any company that doesn't throw some business my way."

That is now protected behavior in the state of Rhode Island, for which a state legislator is immune.

Re: RI Supreme Court Undercuts Ethics Commission

Justin Katz

Writes the RI Supreme Court majority in the case of William Irons and the Ethics Commission:

"We wish to stress in the strongest possible terms, however, that it in no way grants a legislator the right to transgress the Code of Ethics or any other law," the majority wrote. Unprotected actions include political activities, efforts for constituents, assistance in securing government contracts, soliciting and taking bribes and criminal activities — "even those committed to further legislative activity."

It's good of them to break out those dusty ol' "strongest possible terms," but how exactly would that work? Here's the full text from that part of the ruling (PDF; citations removed):

This Court has interpreted the speech in debate clause to provide legislators with "absolute" immunity from questioning "by any other branch of government for their acts in carrying out their legislative duties relating to the legislative process." We wish to stress in the strongest possible terms, however, that it in no way grants a legislator the right to transgress the Code of Ethics or any other law. Legislators are held accountable for violations of the Code of Ethics, and they are not immune for actions which violate that code. The only exceptions are those in which the speech in debate clause of the constitution is implicated. The immunity afforded merely precludes the Ethics Commission from prosecuting within a narrow class of core legislative acts. Actions of legislators "in proposing, passing, or voting upon a particular piece of legislation" are core legislative acts that fall "clearly within the most basic elements of legislative privilege." In short, "as long as [a legislator's] challenged actions, stripped of all considerations of intent and motive, were legislative in character, the doctrine of absolute legislative immunity protects them from such claims."

Activities that remain unprotected by this immunity include, but are not limited to: speeches delivered outside of the legislature; political activities of legislators; undertakings for constituents; assistance in securing government contracts; republication of defamatory material in press releases and newsletters; solicitation and acceptance of bribes; and criminal activities, even those committed to further legislative activity.

"Mr. Legislator, your testimony is that Mr. Money gave you $500,000 to assemble a $15 plastic toy wagon on Saturday, June 27. Didn't that seem like a lot of money?"

"It's generous, but I'm a lawyer, not a professional toy assembler, so I wasn't sure what to charge."

"Why then would the Moneys hire you for that job?"

"I don't know. I guess they know I'm good at bringing pieces together."

"The next day, Mr. Legislator, Mr. Money's business partner, Mrs. Bucks, gave you a check for $200,000. What was that money for?"

"It was a gift."

"You then introduced legislation effectively giving Bucks and Money a monopoly on processing government widgets in the state of Rhode Island — legislation that later passed with your vote — is that true?"

"Objection, your honor. The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled in William V. Irons v. The Rhode Island Ethics Commission et al. that a legislator cannot be questioned for his 'core legislative acts,' which is clearly what the prosecutor is doing."

"Sustained. Mr. Prosecutor, do you have any further evidence that these financial transactions constituted bribery for activity not involving Mr. Legislator's core duties as an elected representative?"

"No, your honor."

"The witness may step down."

June 28, 2009

The Daughter Is In

Justin Katz

Kristin Rodgers, now confirmed to the Superior Court, has an admirable background suggestive of the possibility that, in a world of judicial activism, Anchor Rising readers should prefer her to most others. But still:

In remarks to those gathered in the Senate chamber, Sen. John F. McBurney III, D-Pawtucket, whose father was a state senator, said that some there understood "the honor and responsibility when we carry on in the footsteps of a parent."

Not to be too delicate about it, but given the state in which Rhode Island finds itself, "honor and responsibility" aren't the words that come to mind when I consider those who've contributed to its guidance. We do not need legacies. We do not need carrying on in footsteps. We need redefinition. We need a change in the governing relationships.

Ms. Rodgers may be a fantastic judge, but she should be one somewhere else — where her father wasn't a judge before her and her husband isn't a state trooper. It can only exacerbate Rhode Islanders' tendency toward fatal apathy when the impression is proven accurate again and again that a cadre of families and close associates run the state.

June 22, 2009

A Moratorium on Suspicious Appointments, Please

Justin Katz

Whether or not one considers a legislative log-jamb at the State House to be a positive or negative development, a lowly taxpayer can't help but feel that the appointment of family and friends to positions of influence is on a different track for approval:

Superior Court Presiding Justice Joseph F. Rodgers Jr. on Wednesday announced that he was retiring from the bench at the same time that Governor Carcieri selected Rodgers' daughter, Kristen E. Rodgers, for a seat on the same court.

Rodgers, 67, said that his retirement will be effective Aug. 28. The justice said he expected the Senate Judiciary Committee to take up his daughter's nomination late next week, with a vote by the full Senate on her confirmation before the legislature adjourns for the session.

Rodgers has been a judge for 35 years. His pension will be equal to his full salary, which as of July 1 will be $185,649, he said.

He said he was announcing his retirement now "to accelerate the process" so the General Assembly can name someone to fill his vacancy on the Superior Court sooner rather than later. He said it was his understanding that the legislature was planning to return for a special session in August or September to take up additional judicial nominations.

And of course, there's this convenient factor:

[Kristin] Rodgers was selected from an older list of finalists recommended by the Judicial Nominating Commission. He passed over five people the JNC nominated for the Ragosta seat a year ago.

The law that allows Carcieri to pick from lists submitted by the commission over the past five years is due to expire June 30. Legislation to extend that law by one year passed the Senate last week and has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee for action.

Be impressions what they may, it's possible that this curious timing is not the result of backroom murmurs. Still, I propose that state officials impose upon themselves a moratorium against nepotism. Frankly, the overlapping webs of familiar last names within our various layers of government is becoming a bit too suffocating to take, to the point that I'd almost rather have positions filled by a random finger-poke in the phone book than by the current process.

A passable test for whether a particular appointment would violate the moratorium would be a formulation applied by one of our commenters to a similar story not long ago: After an exhaustive nationwide search, the governor has nominated... the daughter of retiring Justice Joseph Rodgers. If the ellipsis seems justified, the nomination is not.

June 8, 2009

Shifting Laws, Corrupt Continuity

Justin Katz

By now you should have read yesterday's front-page advertisement for the Gaspee Tea Party rally in the Providence Journal. I'm referring to the article on big-money state pensions that Monique mentioned last night.

Most of the article is a series of revelations that make one wish for something symbolic (but not harmful) to tip over or sink, but this insidious qualifier ought not slip by without note:

No one is allowed any longer to buy credit for more time than they actually served in the military. Since 1994, there has been a minimum 20-hour-a-week work requirement for pension credit. That same year, lawmakers repealed the pension provision that recognized the part-time, six–month-a-year legislative clerks and doorkeepers as full-time state employees for pension purposes.

As egregious pension-related schemes have come to light, policies have been changed, but neither the players nor the politics have been rectified significantly. Legislators and judges still offer mutual support for budgets and jobs and so on. Unions still get away with manipulating contracts to drain the public coffers. Who knows what tricks haven't been exposed in the pension system and in other areas of state government.

The only way to prevent such stories from being regular features of the state's major media outlets is to turn up the spotlight and change the people in office.

Toward that end, I hope to see you Wednesday.

May 14, 2009

Protesting the Ethics Loophole at the Courhouse

Carroll Andrew Morse

I'll add a couple of pictures to Jim Baron's Woonsocket Call article on yesterday's oral arguments inside and protest outside of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, concerning the appeal of the State Ethics Commission's case against former Senate President William Irons. Last year, the State's Superior court threw out the Commission's conviction of Irons on the grounds that the official acts of state legislators, regardless of their motivation, cannot be prosecuted because they are protected by the State Constitution's speech-in-debate immunity clause...

Outside the courthouse, protesters, many from the watchdog group Operation Clean Government, held signs bearing slogans such as “Speech in Debate is not a License to Steal,” “Let the Ethics Commission do its job,” and “Don't kill ethics in Rhode Island.” It was two OCG members who filed the original ethics complaint against Irons.

“Are we going to have a double standard for the application of ethics in this state, or are all our elected and appointed officials going to be subject to the code of ethics?” asked one of the sign holders, Robert “Al” Benson. He said the speech in debate clause allows lawmakers to vote any way they like, “unless they use their vote to break the law.”


One argument discussed in Baron's article whose resolution is sure to impact the Court's decision in this case is the unique legal status of the RI Ethics commission…

[Ethics Commission Lawyer Jason Gramitt] pointed out that in a 1992 opinion, the court ruled that the 1986 constitutional change amounted to “an implied modification of legislative powers” because it gave the ethics commission the authority to write its own ethics laws that the General Assembly did not have to approve and could not change.

He asserted that such an “unheard-of grant of authority...is further evidence of the lengths that the drafters (of the amendment) and the voters felt they needed to go to change the landscape of government in the state of Rhode Island. There is no other state in the country since 1986 or currently that has that kind of system of legislating ethics in state government. It never existed until then and it still doesn't exist except here in Rhode Island.”


And Katie Mulvaney's coverage of the oral arguments in the Projo makes a brief mention of what I think is another central argument in the case…

[Justice William P. Robinson] asked Gramitt yesterday how he would deal with the fact that the law disfavors arguments that a law has been repealed by implication.

Gramitt said the 1986 amendment carved out a narrow exception to legislative immunity by expressly giving the commission authority to investigate and impose penalties against legislators.

This is important because, in the years before the passage of the Ethics Amendment, the United States Supreme Court had expressly declined to take a position on whether legislative immunity extends to laws narrowly tailored to regulate legislative conduct, and the idea that judges have an inherent authority to rewrite the plain meaning of Constitutional language that does not conflict with existing interpretations of the Constitution -- which is what the Superior Court did, when it decided that the State Constitution's Ethics Amendment does not fully apply to state legislators, despite text that says it is to be applied to "all elected and appointed officials" -- is an idea that replaces the rule of law with the rule of lawyers.

Further details on the Rhode Island Ethics Amendment and legislative immunity are available here, here, and here.

May 13, 2009

How Rhode Island Corruption Works

Justin Katz

The story itself is egregious enough, but of particular interest in Mike Stanton's excellent coverage of the potential that Maureen McKenna Goldberg, the wife of a top lobbyist and former legislator Robert Golberg, might become Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court is the peek into the mechanics of our state's endemic corruption:

THE SAGA OF A Block Island marina where the Goldbergs enjoy leisure time in the summer illustrates the dilemma of whether to recuse or not to recuse.

In 2003, Bob Goldberg represented Champlin's Marina in its application for a permit to expand its dock space in the Great Salt Pond, only to run into fierce opposition from many islanders and environmentalists. In 2006, after a series of contentious hearings that helped run the marina's legal and professional bill to more than $500,000, the Coastal Resources Management Council blocked the expansion.

Goldberg cried foul, accusing key council members of being biased and basing their votes against the marina on private communications with CRMC staffers and direction from Governor Carcieri, who opposed the expansion. Goldberg appealed to Superior Court.

Meanwhile, the composition of the CRMC was the subject of another fight, at the State House. Following Rhode Island voters' approval of the separation of powers law in 2004, which barred legislators from executive boards and commissions, lawmakers were forced to give up their seats on the CRMC.

But House leaders weren't eager to cede their powers. Speaker Murphy argued that the state Constitution still gave the legislature authority over regulating the coastline.

In 2005, with the Champlin's decision still pending before the CRMC, the House killed a Senate-passed bill giving the governor more appointments to the council. That June, the Rhode Island Supreme Court weighed in. In a case involving a swimmer who had been cited for swimming illegally in the Winnapaug Pond breachway in Westerly, the court ruled that the legislature, not the executive branch, was responsible for regulating Rhode Island’s tidal waters.

Justice Goldberg participated in that decision, Westerly v. Bradley.

The following year, during a Senate hearing on who should control the CRMC, Bob Goldberg cited Westerly v. Bradley to support his argument that it was the legislature's prerogative.

"This is as clear as it gets in the law," said Goldberg, who spoke of Champlin's fight but appeared before the committee as a "citizen." "This is a legislative function . . . This is a clear definition from the Supreme Court . . . It's not my job to tell you people what to do; all I can tell you is what I think."

Justice Goldberg subsequently ruled on another case with direct implications for her husband's interests, but a more pertinent thread runs through a companion story on Mr. Goldberg:

In 1997, she was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Lincoln Almond. She was chosen after House leaders rejected the governor’s first choice, federal prosecutor Margaret E. Curran, who would not commit to the legislature's position on separation of powers.

When separation of powers came before the Supreme Court in 1999, Justice Goldberg voted with the majority in a 4-1 decision in favor of the legislature. In two subsequent separation-of-power cases, involving the Lottery Commission and the Coastal Resources Management Council, the justice recused herself, because her husband represented gambling interests and a marina embroiled in litigation with the CRMC.

There appears to be a contradiction to be parsed regarding Justice Goldberg's "participation" in separation of powers cases, but the picture is clear. In a state with many lawyers as legislators — and with a habit of populating government across branches with multiple members of the same families — the legislature has a strong hand in selecting judges and judges nominate candidates for lucrative magistrate positions, often filling them with legislators and political friends.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly leadership is able to push legislation into a black hole of "further study" and has created a spoils system of legislative grants to dole out to their less powerful associates. Moreover, the lack of political opposition means that the thousands that they rake in as campaign donations from political friends and special interests are freed up for lifestyle amenities and for recirculation to other politicians. As Stanton's articles show, the family connects extend out into the broader political class, including many of those same special interests.

It's a closed system that tends toward cronyism and nepotism, and it's going to be very difficult to combat, even as the state collapses under its weight.

May 1, 2009

A Family Business

Justin Katz

Just to keep track of these things, although that's a herculean task in Rhode Island:

The brother of the state Senate Judiciary Committee chairman has been named associate jury commissioner for the Rhode Island court system.

Eugene J. McCaffrey III began his new post overseeing jury operations for the Kent, Washington, and Newport county courthouses on March 1 at an annual salary of $62,284, said Craig N. Berke, court spokesman. His father, Eugene McCaffrey, is a former Warwick mayor, and his brother is Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael J. McCaffrey. His sister, Mary E. McCaffrey, was named a District Court judge last year.

April 14, 2009

Re: Federal Judgeships and Campaign Contributions - Two Completely Unrelated Items?

Carroll Andrew Morse

For those inclined to throw their hands up in the air and say “dat’s the way da game is played” in response to the appointment of Jack McConnell to a Federal District Court judgeship, take a moment to remember that before he was a Senator with direct influence on judicial appointments, Sheldon Whitehouse joined an amicus brief as Rhode Island’s Attorney General in support of campaign finance regulation that stressed the importance of combating the appearance of corruption…

“Democracy works ‘only if the people have faith in those who govern, and that faith is bound to be shattered when high officials and their appointees engage in activities which arouse suspicions of malfeasance and corruption.’”
So apparently, Senator Whitehouse is concerned (or at least was concerned, maybe he’s changed his mind) that giving too much money to political candidates would create the appearance of corruption. But when the guys taking the money decide to give judgeships to their party's big-time donors, what concern could there be about corruption there?!

This is a version of the same Rhode Island logic that says that it’s OK for legislators to vote based on bribes they might take, as long as giving the bribes is not legal -- because rules are for little people, not for the aristocracy bred to be our leaders.

April 3, 2009

Because They're Better than You

Justin Katz

At some point it just becomes clear that our rulers have so little concern for the rest of us that even considerations of appearances go out the custom-trimmed window:

Frank J. Williams stepped down as chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court in December, but he continues to work as a judge and recently moved into a new office in the Licht Judicial Complex that cost nearly $43,000 to renovate.

Most of the money was spent on custom mahogany cabinets, shelving and doors — at a cost of $29,475. The invoice for the work shows that the contractors used "custom knives" to duplicate molding and that it took 173 hours to refashion the office space, on the seventh floor of the courthouse, at a cost of $46.80 per hour.

Perhaps Home Depot was out of the $1.43-per-foot trim that most folks use in their homes. But that doesn't explain the hiding of the semi-retired judge's crib:

Supreme Court Administrator J. Joseph Baxter Jr. refused to let a Journal reporter see the remodeled chambers because, he said, "it's a private office in a nonpublic area" of the courthouse.

The Supreme Court offices, conference rooms and courtroom take the entire seventh floor of the sprawling courthouse on South Main Street. "It's Mr. Baxter’s feeling that you need the permission of the justice [Williams] to see those particular chambers," said Craig Berke, spokesman for the court system.

Williams, who used to invite reporters into his former chambers for interviews and was the subject of a Workspaces profile by The Wall Street Journal in 2001, was not amenable to showing off his new office to a reporter this week.

Methinks the new revolution shouldn't stop at tea parties.

March 30, 2009

What's Rhode Island's Corruption Tax

Justin Katz

Unfortunately, the "corruption tax," as described here, is not a tax on corruption, but a tax to support corruption:

As taxpayers look down the barrel of a major income tax increase, another tax already is draining their wallets. But this one isn’t found anywhere in the tax code.

It's the "corruption tax" — the extra money Illinois residents pay because of dishonest public officials.

People pay the tax when politicians give government jobs to unqualified cronies and contracts to expense-padding donors. They pay when public employees take bribes to overlook violations, when law enforcement spends millions prosecuting crooked politicians and when people are injured because of government misconduct.

"It means hundreds of millions of dollars lost in waste," said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and head of political science at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

I suppose the question is where one draws the line. The ratcheting up of public-sector pensions (and the failure every year to address the problem that they present) and benefits for union organizers are among the costs that I would include. Without having conducted any sort of study, I'd suggest that eliminating Rhode Island's corruption tax would close its annual deficit and then some.

via David Freddoso)

March 23, 2009

An Odd Ethical Control

Justin Katz

This observation doesn't necessarily have any implications for Brian Stern, Governor Carcieri's chief of staff, but this strikes me as a peculiar anti-corruption strategy:

In a March 9 letter and subsequent conversations with [ethics] commission staff, he acknowledged having applied for openings as a Superior Court judge and chief judge of the District Court and asked whether he was barred by the state's "revolving-door" law from making the leap directly from a top position on the governor's staff to the bench.

The law was aimed, in part, at preventing top-tier state officials from using their inside influence to land judgeships, but it also contains an exemption for people with at least five years of "uninterrupted state service."

This is the relevant legal language:

(o) No person holding a senior policy-making, discretionary, or confidential position on the staff of any state elected official or the general assembly shall seek or accept any other employment by any state agency as defined in § 36-14-2(8)(i), while serving as such policy-making, discretionary, or confidential staff member and for a period of one year after leaving that state employment as a member of the state elected official's or the general assembly's senior policy-making, discretionary, or confidential staff.

(2) Notwithstanding the foregoing, a person holding a senior policy-making, discretionary, or confidential staff position who has a minimum of five (5) years of uninterrupted state service shall be exempt from the provisions of this section. "State service" as used herein means service in the classified, unclassified and nonclassified services of the state, but shall not include service in any state elective office.

How does it lessen to possibility of corruption that a person takes five years to develop sufficient "inside influence" to acquire a judgeship?

March 19, 2009

William Felkner: Is the State Labor Relations Board biased? You betcha!

Engaged Citizen

The dispute between the East Providence School Committee and the East Providence Teachers' Union has focused attention of the Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board (SLRB), a largely obscure administrative body that referees disputes between management and labor. What little public information is available regarding the Board and its operations has caused taxpayers to be concerned that the process may be biased in favor of labor. And these are not new concerns.

In 2004, Governor Carcieri called for several SLRB members to resign after they ruled that child care workers providing services to children on welfare should be considered state employees. The far reaching effect of this decision could have opened the door for as many as 1300 state contract workers to become union members. That decision was eventually overturned by the Superior Court. At that time, it was noted that eight of the last nine SLRB decisions taken to the Supreme Court had been overturned.

Now, in 2009, we see another unsettling action from the SLRB that once again raises questions of bias.

In September, the East Providence School Committee filed a charge against the Teachers' Union consisting of three pages of detailed allegations of obstacles created by the union during the negotiation process. Two months later, the union filed a two sentence complaint against the school committee regarding more or less the same circumstances, the central allegation of which was that "no substantive discussions had occurred."

Despite the extensively documented submission of the School Committee regarding the Union's behavior, the SLRB administratively dismissed this complaint. Yet the SLRB sustained the charges of the Union as deserving of a hearing, despite the fact that they do not detail any conduct by the School Committee that constitutes a "refusal to bargain."

As if that didn't raise obvious questions of bias, a month later, when the union filed on additional grounds, the Board broke all records of dispatch in forwarding the matter. In the three years prior to the East Providence case, it took an average of 148 days for a filed charge to be reviewed and an average of 319 days to get a hearing before the board. The Union's charge from East Providence was approved in 36 days and will have a hearing in only 73. According to our research, the process has never moved this fast.

How the SLRB administrative decisions are made and why this case has been processed so much more quickly than any other will remain a mystery as discussions are held behind closed doors. It is easy to see why the public would be suspicious of the process given the apparent different treatment of labor and management interests in this case.

Cynicism about the responsiveness of government in Rhode Island is nothing new, but the Ocean State Policy Research Institute is committed to informed public discourse. Accordingly, we have earnestly undertaken to learn more about how the SLRB functions, who they are and how they make their decisions. We have examined the SLRB's last three years of decisions for evidence of their prejudices, whatever they might be. The unmistakable conclusion one reaches is that the SLRB lacks transparency and they lean toward labor.

From 2006 to the present, the SLRB has heard 19 cases, seven of which we have determined to contain substantive rulings that impact management-labor interactions. Every one of those major cases was ruled in favor of labor. The total scorecard for the SLRB, including cases with minimal impact, is 15 wins for Labor and four wins for management.

While the board's decisions are generally logically reasoned, that is different from saying that they are correctly decided. These kinds of decisions interpreting statutes, rules and regulations depend on analogy to previous results. The weight the Board places on these various precedents operates like a finger on the scale, and there can be no doubt it is tipping towards labor.

But don't take our word for it. We have created the Labor Relations Board Watch website (www.lrbwatch.org) to house our research along with public information we obtain to provide transparency. It is time that everyone takes a close look at the SLRB and engages in reasoned debate to create pressure for reform. It would be naive at best to think that the board's documented history of opaque behavior and perceptually biased decision making would change without intervention. We hope this website empowers citizens with the necessary information to let the Board members know that they are watching — a dynamic that is new to the SLRB. Gone will be the days that the Board pulls the economic strings of the public purse in virtual secrecy.

Bill Felkner is the president of the Ocean State Policy Research Institute, sponsor of the LRB Watch website and the Transparency Train public information portal.

March 15, 2009

A State of Unfreedom

Justin Katz

I intend to spend a little more time perusing the report titled Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom (PDF), put out by the George Mason University Mercatus Center, but Rhode Island's predictable rankings, among the 50 states, are notable without extensive commentary:

  • Fiscal policy: 41
  • Regulatory policy: 48
  • Economic freedom: 42
  • Personal freedom: 47
  • Overall freedom: 48

Overall, only New Jersey and New York are less free than Rhode Island. And regarding overall freedom, it's not surprising that the scatter plot on page 21 shows a precipitous drop when the percentage of the vote going to the Democrat nominee for president (in 2004) exceeds 50%.

March 8, 2009

A Rhode Island Tale: On the Patronage Train

Justin Katz

There's not much to say about this, but it's so nearly a cliché unto itself that it begs mention:

Without any official notice, the Senate yesterday voted unanimously to confirm House Speaker William J. Murphy's deputy assistant, Patrick T. Burke, as a special magistrate in the Superior Court. ...

Unlike judges, magistrates are not vetted by the state's Judicial Nominating Commission in an open and competitive arena. They are recommended by the top judges of each court, in this case Superior Court Presiding Justice Joseph F. Rodgers Jr., who urged speedy action on the Feb. 26 nomination. ...

[Burke] was at the center of a controversial court case that worked its way to the state Supreme Court in the 1990s that evolved from his arrest by the Warwick police in 1993 after they observed his car weaving on Route 2 around 2:30 a.m. The police charged him with refusing to submit to a portion of the breath test, and the traffic court suspended his license and scheduled a hearing that never took place after being continued seven times, the last time at the prosecutor's request because she knew Burke through the courts and questioned whether she could be impartial.

Burke's lawyer, then House Speaker John B. Harwood, in 1996 filed for dismissal, saying the state’s action deprived Burke of his right to a speedy trial. Judge John F. Lallo dismissed the charge, but fined Burke for a roadway violation. The attorney general's office appealed to a three-judge traffic appeals court panel, which upheld the dismissal. The attorney general appealed to the state Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.

And now he starts tomorrow at his new $150K position. Eased into the soft cushion of Rhode Island putrefaction.

March 5, 2009

Scoring the State Labor Relations Board

Justin Katz

The Ocean State Policy Research Institute has kicked off LRB Watch to track the wins with the State Labor Relations Board. Despite claims from certain quarters that the board is "management" heavy, OSPRI finds that labor has one 15 of 19 decisions since 2006. When it comes to matters that OSPRI classifies as "major" — based mostly on "the establishment or reinforcement of precedents of potential wide application" — labor is seven for seven.

Not that the actual record will matter to those aforementioned quarters.

February 7, 2009

And Saturday Afternoon...

Justin Katz

And now to the Ed Achorn talk in Barrington. I missed the beginning, owing to the need in this state to circumnavigate rivers.

A few notables in the crowd, including a unionist who's disrupting the question period by trying to turn the session into a discussion of Mr. Achorn and the Projo. The crowd actually piped up and told him to let the event proceed.

As it happens, it's the guy who called me a loser at the East Providence school committee meeting and who complained of having to drive down from Boston to a Tiverton school committee meeting.

Peculiarly, he made a point of shaking my hand as he left the room. Wonder what the crowd thinks I'm typing, here.

2:38 p.m.:

Ed called the special interest groups of RI DaVincis in their masterpiece of controlling RI's legislature.

2:49 p.m.

There's a wide-ranging conversationi going on, from town to national topics, almost making the group of 50 (or so) people a community event for reform-minded people. (That's now that the union plant has left, of course.)

2:55 p.m.:

One member of the audience asked about the CEO bonuses in the midst of bailoutpalooza, leading to a sense of collusion, and Ed noted that part of the problem is the size of the government and the market manipulation that it enables. That speaks to the point that I often make that these millions of dollars in waste and bonuses would represent a significant cost disadvantage in a more competitive environment.

3:02 p.m.

June Gibbs just noted that there is a group forming in conjunction with Operation Clean Government that's attempting to create an opposition movement. I think I know what she means, but there are actually several things going on behind the scenes that bear on the question.

To be honest, sometimes I worry whether the whole thing can come together, for various reasons, but there is some movement out of view.

February 2, 2009

Postponement and Corruption

Justin Katz

Word on the street is that the RI Senate Judiciary Committee has indefinitely postponed its hearing on marriage issues.

On a related note, a source in a position to know informs me that the reason even informed citizens can be surprised by such events is that the General Assembly exempts itself from open meeting laws. Apparently, it's an annual tradition: The Republicans move to adhere to the laws, and the Democrats continue the exemption.

Nothing to see there, I guess.

January 29, 2009

The Lien Removal Timeline

Carroll Andrew Morse

The KPMG report on the Providence Tax Collector's office provides enough clues to tell us how the Cicilline administration will attempt to explain that no deliberate act of corruption occurred with regard to Felix Garcia's tax-lien(s).

The timeline of the liens is as follows:

  1. (January 2006) The initial city lien is placed...
    In June 2004, approximately eight months after Garcia Enterprises had ceased making payments on this account, Scott Hammer, on behalf of the City of Providence commenced legal action against Garcia Enterprises with the filing of a complaint in Rhode Island Superior Court on June 22, 2004. In June 2005, Hammer filed a motion for summary judgment against Garcia Enterprises Inc, for $90,937, the amount owed by the business in delinquent tangible tax. This amount cited by Hammer in his motion does not apparently reflect the payment of $25,000 made by Garcia Enterprises to the City in August 2004. Hammer recently stated that he was not aware that Garcia Enterprises had made such a payment to the City at that time, and surmised that the $25,000 payment may have been submitted to the Collector’s office in response to his filing of the lawsuit in June 2004.

    The motion for summary judgment was granted in August 2005, and the Court entered judgment for the full amount. In January 2006, Hammer levied a lien on behalf of the City against Garcia Enterprises’ property located at 559 Cranston Street Providence Rhode Island. This lien was recorded in the Providence Recorder of Deeds office on January 10, 2006.

  2. (May 2006) After a $75,000 check from John Cicilline is offered as "collateral" for the back taxes due, the lien is formally lifted...
    Scott Hammer filed a Discharge of Lien with the Providence Recorder of Deeds on May 9, 2006,32 at approximately 1:40PM, and the lien on 559 Cranston Street was subsequently lifted.

    Hammer advised during his interview with KPMG that it was not his practice to discharge a lien without receiving payment in full in a tax collection matter. He further stated, relative to other collection matters that he handled on the City’s behalf, that he could not recall a similar circumstance where he agreed to remove a lien without actual payment of funds.

  3. (November 2006) Somehow, it is learned that there are insufficient funds in John Cicilline's account to cover the $75,000 check. A new check is sought by the city, as is John Cicilline's signature on an agreement which includes reinstating the lien on the property in question...
    • As of November 1, 2006, Garcia Enterprises owed $106,540.22 in overdue tangible taxes to the City of Providence for the years 1998 – 2005.
    • John Cicilline’s Fleet account, his “Office Account,” from which both the initial check and the replacement check were written, “has never had sufficient funds available to cash Check.”
    • Upon execution of the agreement, a lien in the amount of $111,805.42 (including 2006 tax owed in addition to the 1998-2005 back taxes) would be placed on 559 Cranston Street, Providence, the property owned by Garcia Enterprises.
    • The replacement check provided by John Cicilline “is in full settlement of the lawsuit filed in this matter.”
    • The replacement check was to be held by Hammer’s law firm “for a period of no more than sixty (60) days and, thereafter, Check will be deposited into Blasbalg & Hammer’s Client Account without further reference,” and
    • Once the replacement check cleared the bank, Hammer’s law firm would issue a Satisfaction of Judgment relative to the previously filed lawsuit.
    In addition, accompanying the Agreement was a one page “Lien against Real Estate,” also to be signed by John Cicilline that indicated that the parties agreed that a lien would be placed on Garcia Enterprises’ property as described above.
  4. Eventually this agreement is signed by John Cicilline. However, it is never signed by Scott Hammer (the city's tax collection attorney), and the lien is never replaced...
    Once Ceprano received the original signed Agreement, however, he never forwarded it to Hammer for his execution. KPMG initially obtained a copy of the Agreement from the City Collector’s Garcia Enterprises file, and it was noted upon review that this copy only contained John Cicilline’s signature, and had not been countersigned by Hammer, as attorney representing the City. Prior to speaking with Scott Hammer about this, KPMG interviewed Bob Ceprano, who stated that he had advised Hammer that Cicilline signed the Agreement, but could not fully explain why he had not forwarded the Agreement to Hammer. Ceprano stated that Hammer advised him at the time he was frustrated, and did not want to spend more time on the Garcia Enterprises account without getting paid (under Hammer’s contract with the City, he was paid a commission only on funds actually collected). Ceprano also indicated that Hammer had expressed doubt about the effectiveness of replacing the lien on the property, in that re-filing the lien would not get the City back to its original position due to other liens that had been placed...

    Directly contradicting Ceprano’s version of events relative to the Agreement, Hammer subsequently advised KPMG that he had not at the time been informed by Ceprano or anyone else that John Cicilline had signed the Agreement. Hammer stated he only learned of this in early October 2008, when the Rhode Island State Police had shown him the original copy of the Agreement containing Cicilline’s signature. Hammer stated to KPMG that had he been aware of the signed Agreement at the time, he would have similarly signed it, and would have attempted to proceed under the terms of the Agreement, subject to his client’s (the City’s) direction.

Now, combine this version of events with this one other statement from the KPMG report (referring to the original check)...
Ceprano explained in his interview that neither he, nor the Collector’s Office was responsible for placing or removing liens, and that this was the responsibility of the City’s Collection Attorney, Scott Hammer.
...and it becomes clear, I believe, what the Cicilline administration's explanation for all this is going to be. Whatever was going on with people scrambling behind the scenes, the act that appears to be the most serious act of corruption -- the non-replacement of the lien on the Garcia property after the first check was determined to be no good -- was really the result of a breakdown in communication between Robert Ceprano and Scott Hammer.

This charge as well as John Cicilline's charge that the idea of using a check as "collateral" for a tax-lien was Robert Ceprano's in the first place are the charges that Mr. Ceprano has to be prepared to defend himself against.

January 28, 2009

Why Robert Ceprano Is Getting the Blame

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here are the two-and-a-half versions from the KPMG report (courtesy of the Projo) of where the idea of John Cicilline writing a $75,000 check (that he couldn't cover) to help reconcile Felix Garcia's tax debt came from.

According to the version of events presented as Providence Tax Collector Robert Ceprano's, John Cicilline more-or-less out of nowhere offers the $75,000 check as "collateral" for the taxes owed...

Ceprano related to KPMG that, on or about May 9, 2006, in a meeting with John Cicilline, Cicilline presented a check from his law office account made to the City of Providence in the amount of $75,000. The check was presented by John Cicilline in relation to the settlement agreement reached by him on behalf of his client Garcia, regarding the past due tangible taxes owed to the City of Providence by Garcia Enterprises. The check was dated May 9, 2006, and contained a notation in the memo line “Settlement 1998 - 2005 #99155320” (99155320 is Garcia Enterprises’ tangible tax account number).

Ceprano recalled that during the above referenced meeting with John Cicilline to discuss the Garcia Enterprises account, Cicilline offered to provide this check in return for the City’s agreement to lift the lien on Garcia Enterprises’ property at 559 Cranston Street. Ceprano advised that the understanding with John Cicilline was that the City would remove the lien and hold Cicilline’s check as “collateral,” until Garcia was able to complete a re-financing of this property, and pay the $75,000 to the City from the proceeds.

However, a little further in, the report suggests that tax collection attorney Scott Hammer may have been the one who came up with the idea of a lawyer writing a check for his client...
In our interview, Hammer’s recollection of the discussion regarding the check varied, although he ultimately confirmed that he did advise Ceprano he approved of the arrangement. He initially recalled that he thought it crazy for John Cicilline to offer to put up personal funds for his client, and that he advised Ceprano that accepting the check was not the best idea. On further reflection, in his discussion with KPMG, he indicated that he may have actually suggested that John Cicilline provide a check on Garcia’s behalf, as a way for Hammer and the City to become more comfortable with Cicilline’s request to have the lien removed. Hammer explained that he suggested this in order to protect his client and to have a guarantee of payment. While he acknowledged that John Cicilline’s check was not actually a guaranteed payment, he indicated that he was comfortable with the situation because the check was from an attorney, and the fact that the attorney was well known and was the Mayor’s brother.
Then even further in, according to a detailed version of John Cicilline's recollection of events, Cicilline claims that the idea of using an uncashed check as collateral came to him as a suggestion from Ceprano...
Mr. Ceprano told Mr. Cicilline that if the City were provided a check for $75,000 as surety for the payment of taxes, Mr. Ceprano could see his way clear to releasing the lien for the purpose of allowing the refinance. Mr. Cicilline said he would talk to his client about getting a check to post to the City to be cashed after the refinance.

At that point in time, Mr. Ceprano stated that he did not want a check from Mr. Garcia. He said he would take a check from John Cicilline and hold it and not cash it. Mr. Cicilline was shocked. Mr. Cicilline inquired as to why he would give a check, drafted on his account, for taxes owed by his client. Mr. Ceprano stated that he (Mr. Ceprano) would feel more confident that the bill would get paid if John gave the City a check for $75,000 to hold. John responded by laughing and saying:

“I’ll do it but I don’t have that kind of money in my account.”

Ceprano said that was okay because he would just be holding the check until Garcia refinanced and paid the City. Again John laughed and said:

“That’s fine, but don’t try to cash my check if I write it for $75,000 because I’m broke. You would be lucky if I had $2,000 to $3,000 to my name.”

John went on to express that his account had never had that kind of money in it. Mr. Ceprano responded by saying that was fine; the City would not cash the check; it would simply buy some time for John’s client to refinance.

Can we presume that the firing of Robert Ceprano implies the city is accepting John Cicilline's version of events as what actually happened?

January 13, 2009

Small Strands of the RI Web of Interests

Justin Katz

Simply because it represented an unanticipated expenditure during a time of extremely tight budgets — indeed, when the town council is pondering a "token" reduction in its own pay totaling $2,520 — I made note of the Tiverton Town Council's decision to make $900 available to municipal officials to attend a Grow Smart RI workshop on "making good land-use decisions." Now, I don't want to make a big deal of such a (relatively) small expenditure, and the council did pass the measure unanimously, but there's a curious point to consider.

Town Solicitor Andrew Teitz made the suggestion during his "announcements, comments and questions" section at the tail end of the meeting, and ex-president Louise Durfee was the first to ask questions about the cost. She initially asked whether $90 was to cover all attendees and then made a joke indicating some surprise at the high expense. Yet, when it came down to it, she was the one who made the motion to release almost a thousand dollars.

She's also listed as a director emeritus of Grow Smart and was an active member of the board of directors until a few years ago.

Like I said: It's a small thing, but we've all heard the phrase "death by a thousand paper cuts." It's a torturous death, indeed, when experienced amid the salt of layoffs, foreclosures, and general financial hardship. To a carpenter who just found himself $50 short of the amount needed to avoid late fees on his mortgage (which, incidentally, would have been affordable had his property taxes not gone up so much this year), $900 isn't such a token.

January 11, 2009

This Is How the State Works (Its Way into a Hole)

Justin Katz

It's important to keep in mind that this report consists mainly of allegations, some of them (at least) made by people with compromising motivation. That said, the insight into the practices of our state are well worth familiarization:

[Probate Judge Robert E.] Rainville says he has done nothing wrong — and that the complaints against him are "100 percent politically motivated." He claims that Council Vice President Angelo A. Padula Jr. is trying to oust him because he is a lifelong friend of Stephen Alves, the former state senator from West Warwick who lost a reelection bid in November. ...

In Rhode Island, probate judges are political appointees. They do not operate under any uniform rules but wield great power. They can inalterably change an elderly person's life by appointing a stranger to take control over every facet of their affairs — from how their money is spent, to where they live and with whom they associate.

Some probate judges are experts in probate law. But others have very little expertise in these matters. Some routinely tape-record proceedings so that a complete record of what is said is made; others do not. Some routinely seal parts of court files while similar records in other cities and towns remain open to public inspection. At least one probate judge in the state routinely has lawyers who appear before him make their presentations to him privately at the bench so the spectators in the courtroom cannot hear what he or the lawyers say. The proceedings usually aren't taped, unless a lawyer brings a stenographer to make a record — at the client's expense.

As part of their duties, probate judges decide what fees to award guardians and lawyers who represent estates. The amounts charged vary greatly based on the complexity of the case, the amount of time spent by the attorney and how much the lawyer charges per hour, which varies based on the attorney. The Supreme Court Rules of Professional Conduct put no limit on what a lawyer may charge, only that the fee be "reasonable."

At first reading, so to speak, it's difficult to understand how a part-time legislature and the small-scale operations of our tiny state engender such endemic corruption as we all know to exist, but when one digs into matters, it begins to appear that the principle of mutual back scratching permeates the entire structure of government. It's as if corruption is laundered so thoroughly that it transcends the law.

That's why no one should be surprised if Rhode Island scores more highly in corruption as a matter of opinion survey than of prosecutions.

No Precedent for the Irons Ruling

Carroll Andrew Morse

In today’s Projo, I have an op-ed detailing how the Rhode Island Superior Court’s dismissal of the Ethics Commission case against William Irons ignores basic precedents that have been established by the Courts regarding legislative immunity. The decision is being appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

More detailed background on the cases cited and on the history of the interpretation of legislative immunity is available here and here.

January 6, 2009

The Supreme Court on Legislative Immunity

Carroll Andrew Morse

Robert Benson's solution, proposed in last Friday's Projo, to the legal question of whether ethics rules can be applied to the official lawmaking activities of legislators presented by the Rhode Island Ethics Commission v. William Irons case…

Why not keep the speech in debate provisions in place except when the legislator is accused of a serious crime or a violation of the state’s code of ethics?
…is entirely consistent with United States Supreme Court jurisprudence on the issue.

As is noted in the Superior Court's opinion dismissing the case against former Senator Irons…

Rhode Island follows the guidance issued by the Johnson and Brewster Courts that legislators may, in particular circumstances, be questioned and prosecuted outside of the legislative chambers.
Johnson refers to the 1966 case of United States v. Johnson; in that case, the Supreme Court had this to say on the issue of the applicability of narrowly drawn ethics rules to legislators…
We expressly leave open for consideration when the case arises a prosecution which, though possibly entailing inquiry into legislative acts or motivations, is founded upon a narrowly drawn statute passed by Congress in the exercise of its legislative power to regulate the conduct of its members.
Thus, even prior to the addition of the 1986 Ethics Amendment to the State Constitution, the Courts had found no "speech-in-debate" prohibitions against the application of ethics rules to legislators. Speech-in-debate immunity therefore cannot be a compelling reason for overturning the Constitutional Amendment now.

January 2, 2009

Stop "Unethical, but Legal"

Justin Katz

Robert Benson, first vice president of Operation Clean Government, calls for outrage over Superior Court Judge Francis Darigan's ruling that legislators cannot face consequences for votes cast in response to bribes:

This is not just some arcane legal conundrum of little interest to most Rhode Islanders. Darigan's decision essentially guts the state's Code of Ethics and leaves the Ethics Commission powerless when legislators violate this code. His decision is based on a 200-year-old "speech in debate" clause in the Rhode Island Constitution that protects members of the General Assembly from reprisals for their legislative actions. Article VI, Section 5 of the state's constitution says, "For any speech in debate in either house, no member shall be questioned in any other place." Judge Darigan believes this sentence trumps a 1986 amendment to the state Constitution that created the Rhode Island Ethics Commission precisely to deal with abuses of office by public officials.

Article III, Section 8 of the Rhode Island Constitution states, "all elected and appointed officials and employees of the state and local government, of boards, commissions and agencies shall be subject to the code of ethics." The key word is all — it means members of the state General Assembly House and Senate as well as all other elected officials. This amendment further states, "The ethics commission shall have the authority to investigate violations of the code of ethics and to impose penalties, as provided by law."

Unfortunately, I'm not sure that Rhode Islanders do outrage — at least not against political corruption. The state's too intertangled with itself; too many backs are being scratched. The pessimist in me concludes that the state will not begin to turn itself around until the various interest groups begin to battle each other, rather than the taxpayer. Of course, the interest groups (unions, poverty industry, Democrat partisans, and so on) have developed an overlapping hierarchy that will resist internal competition as long as possible.

But then, I tend to be an optimist, which leads me to agree with OCG founder Bruce Lang that "Rhode Island can be one of the most successful states in the United States," and that a positive message, backed by concerted effort and strategic cooperation can implement specific changes to the law, such as the three that Lang lists:

1. Reduce the size and cost of our governments in every possible way — by eliminating and consolidating many jobs, government services, government departments and school systems.

2. Improve the illegal-immigration situation, which must be costing our state at least somewhere between $200 million and $400 million per year.

3. Not only can we not increase taxes, if we are going to become competitive as a state we must begin (even if takes years) to reduce taxes, such as estate and certain corporate and individual income tax rates.

Increasingly, I'm persuaded that the ultimate determinant of reform's success will be the opposition movement's ability to get its act together. That'll mean putting egos aside, elevating the goal above the process, and refusing to let the forces of the status quo amplify our differences beyond both.

December 27, 2008

Up Against the Pirates Who Never Left

Justin Katz

I understand that part of historian Doug Burgess's argument is that piracy was once a somewhat respectable occupation among American colonies, but I can't help but take this as an indication of the historical nature of conservative reformers' current task:

Newport became a Colonial capital for pirating.

"The Colony [of Rhode Island] now began to attract brigands from every Colony," Burgess writes. "This was due both to its geographic advantages as a safe harbor and to the complacency of its government. Yet 1691 also marks the beginning of Rhode Island's 'pirate fever' when the Colony became virtually synonymous with piratical trade."

Ironically, pirating's success became its problem. Pirates became plentiful, lazy and inarguably unlawful, according to Burgess. Instead of traveling to some far away place to loot ships, they simply cruised the coast, robbed some boats and returned home from a day's work. And what's worse, at least for the Colonial governments, is the pirates didn't seek commissions, and, consequently didn't give any cuts.

There's a novel waiting to be written on the premise that some spiritual force located in this area attracts a certain type of character — the pirates and mobsters — and instills a certain insidious apathy among broad segments of the population. The state is possessed by a demon whispering, "Just get yours, brother."

Even if we're merely up against a regional character trait centuries in the stewing, we must take it as an opportunity to undo what the pirates have wrought.

December 22, 2008

On Legal Corruption

Justin Katz

The link is more associative than direct, but something in attempts to use recent research to paint as a myth the pervasive impression of rampant corruption in Rhode Island has seemed off to me. I've thought, for example, that there must be something in the fact that journalists put Rhode Island at the top of the national corruption list even though comparisons of convictions place us in the upper portion of the middle of the pack. Mark Patinkin implies that Rhode Island's politicians are so good at corruption that their hands remain clean in the eyes of the law.

The drama of the Resource Recovery Corporation expands on that general principle, in my opinion:

A recent audit of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation cites "a clear pattern of gross mismanagement" and confirms that the agency has lost $13.7 million on the development of its industrial park.

The state agency, which oversees the state Central Landfill, has restated its financial records to show real estate losses on about 70 acres, including land purchased from the family of former Johnston Mayor William R. Macera. ...

Straightening out the books, and accounting for overstated assets, has not answered all of the questions about Resource Recovery’s real estate practices.

"The real question is, Why did we do that?" OConnell said. "Why did we spend money that way?"

Another team of forensic auditors, commissioned by Governor Carcieri, is still examining the land transactions as well as allegations of theft by employees and other possible crimes, payments for services not rendered or of questionable value, potential state ethics violations and violations of procurement procedures.

There are, obviously, allegations of actual law breaking, here, but it's also worth noting that corruption doesn't necessarily cross the line into illegality. Especially in a state in which it's apparently legal to bribe legislators for their votes.

December 15, 2008

Takin' Care of a Tax-Lien

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here's a better explanation of the point regarding Felix Garcia's tax-lien that I didn't do a very good job of making on Matt Allen's show on Friday night: If the standard operating procedure in the City of Providence is to release a tax-lien, before even a promised partial payment has actually been made, the City of Providence should let the public know, and some of the appearance of corruption in the Felix Garcia/John Cicilline case might go away -- but not all.

According to Christopher Bizzacco's affidavit, if the city was unable to obtain the $75,000 (part to be applied to a partial payment to the city?) from Cicilline by February of 2007, at the absolute latest, then the lien should have been restored, yet it never was. Why didn't the city reinstate the lien after February 2007? (And we know it wasn't because the property in question was sold in May of 2007, without the issue of the lien having been addressed).

To me, the repeated instructions not to cash the check, but the lack of mention of any instructions not to reinstate the lien is the strangest part of Christopher Bizzacco's affidavit. We know that the city still considered Felix Garcia's debt to exist, because it was continuing to track the interest on the money owed. Are we to believe that Robert Ceprano (the city tax collector), on his own, made a decision not to reinstate the lien and let the matter drop, and that Ceprano was the sole city finance official who would have been aware of the status of an unpaid debt of over $100,000?

December 11, 2008

Exhausted by Corruption

Justin Katz

Wherein, I express tiredness with political corruption on the Matt Allen show. Why aren't other people fed up with the likes of Cicilline? Stream by clicking here, or download it.

December 2, 2008

In Support of Pride

Justin Katz

How's this for a study in contrasts:

OF ALL THE COMMUNITIES EXAMINED BY CHANNEL 12, THE STATE POLICE HAD THE LOWEST RATE OF ACCIDENTAL DISABILITY PENSIONS. MOST CITIES AND TOWNS WERE UP AROUND 40, 30 PERCENT, SOME IN THE 20S. YOU GUYS WERE AT EIGHT PERCENT. I THINK IT WAS OF 230 RETIREES, ONLY 19 HAVE AN ACCIDENTAL DISABILITY PENSION. WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE THIS LOW RATE TO? Unfortunately, we've had some troopers hurt to a degree where they have to retire. We closely scrutinize any request for a disability pension. I have refused two myself in the last two years, and those people have gone on to retire. I think the troopers take a lot of pride in their conditioning, and take a lot of pride in their job. We do not have a problem with sick leave. About four years ago, I surveyed the troopers of the state police and found, I believe, they use 1.5 sick days a year on the average. That's incredible. Now many, many do not use any time. I once went 10 years without a sick day, and there are many troopers that have gone longer than that.

One hears tales of public employees at the local level working the sick-time benefit to pump up each other's overtime. Perhaps the keepers of Rhode Island's ethical standards should spend some time examining the factors that make state troopers healthier and less — ahem — accident prone.

November 30, 2008

Not an Honorary Pension

Justin Katz

Participating in several generations of dishonorable conduct strikes me as a pretty substantial harm to the public good when done by a police officer. If only to send a signal, "retired" Captain John Ryan, formerly of the Providence PD, ought to lose his pension:

City officials have resumed their effort to take away the pension of retired police Capt. John J. Ryan, one of three former high-ranking police officers implicated in the Police Department's cheating-for-promotions scandal.

But Ryan has gone to Superior Court in an effort to stave off the threat, which arises from a scandal that dates to the mid- to late-1990s. ...

New charges have now been added to the city’s bill of particulars against Ryan: That he accepted favors from Richard “Uncle Dickie” Autiello while Autiello’s Four A’s auto sales and repair business had contracts with the Police Department that Ryan supervised. Ryan, the city alleges, received free or underpriced vehicles and vehicle repairs from Autiello as well as other gifts. ...

The cheating, which has been admitted in various forums, consisted of the surreptitious distribution to favored officers of so-called source sheets that drastically limited what they had to study for their written promotional examinations. By knowing where to focus their study, according to city officials, those officers enjoyed a significant advantage over their competitors. ...

At issue is a municipal ordinance that requires honorary service as a prerequisite for an employee to receive a pension. A lack of such service calls for the reduction or revocation of a pension, according to the interpretation of Mayor David N. Cicilline, city lawyers and members of the Retirement Board, who instigated the pension-divestiture cases.

Ryan contends in his lawsuit that his pension cannot be touched, under the ordinance, unless he is convicted of a job-related crime. He has never been charged with a crime, let alone convicted.

It seems to me that a deal promising a 47-year-old man, able to work as "a law enforcement consultant and lawyer," $28,056 every year for the rest of his life justifies a pretty high ethical bar. Furthermore, losing that million-dollar benefit should be a very strong incentive against future corruption.

November 13, 2008

Hatching a Plan

Justin Katz

The Hatch Act has been a topic of conversation in these parts over the past few months, and the Lincoln Republicans think they have a candidate in Democrat State Representative Mary Ann Shallcross Smith. Furthermore:

The Lincoln Republican Town Committee also issued statements around Shallcross-Smith's campaign with specifics regarding the use of her 501 (c) (3) organizations to obtain a win in the election on November 4th. Michael Napolitano, Chairman of the Lincoln Republican Town Committee offered up several key points supported by IRS tax law that gave the Shallcross- Smith campaign an unfair and unallowable advantage in the race. Said Napolitano, "She utilized her Kids Klub location as campaign headquarters and executed a phone bank to call local voters from inside Kids Klub. Individuals have come forward informing us that they received a telephone call with the child care number on their caller ID asking for a vote for their candidate. In addition, she had campaign signs on the property of the 501 (c) 3 non-profit facility. ...

Nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations are forbidden from engaging in any political activity in support or opposition of a candidate for public office. The Internal Revenue Code states that 501(c)(3) organizations must "not participate in, or intervene in (including publishing or distribution of statements), any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office." A 501(c)(3) organization that violates this rule may lose its tax-exempt status and face other financial penalties. The IRS has noted a large amount of 501 (c) 3 violations over the past few years. "The law does not allow charities to participate in political campaigns," said IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson. "While the vast majority of charities, including churches, did not engage in politicking, our examinations substantiated a disturbing amount of political intervention in the 2004 electoral cycle.

Of course, pretending that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing (when in reality the two are washing each other) is a habitual practice in Rhode Island.

Full press release in the extended entry.

Continue reading "Hatching a Plan"

November 4, 2008

Buying Disaster

Justin Katz

URI economics professor Leonard Lardaro can't believe the inaction in the statehouse:

To my utter amazement, in spite of all these economic difficulties and the lessons to be learned from our past mistakes, our leaders apparently have yet to see any need to meet or do anything to deal with this crisis. I have even heard several of them say that when the recession is over, they will see what they can do at that time.

It's been obvious for years that, among legislators, there is no plan. They're just trying to get by, siphon off what they can, and allow Rhode Island to keep being Rhode Island, even when that means being on the wrong side of every list.

I suspect that William Colleran is not surprised:

The Web page of the state Board of Elections is www.ricampaignfinance.com/ripublic/contribution.spx. It is the source of my research on contributions during the 2007-08 General Assembly session. I focused in on the period from Jan. 1, 2007, through Sept. 15, 2008.

Over this period, the incumbents (75 representatives and 38 senators) received some $2 million. A whopping $850,000 — or 43 percent of that sum — flowed to the top leadership. That would include the House speaker, the Senate president, the two majority leaders and the two Finance Committee chairmen. Fully half of this swag found its way into the coffers of Speaker William Murphy and Senate President Joseph Montalbano. This money, coincidentally, was just about evenly shared, with Murphy receiving $250,000 and Montalbano pulling in $215,000.

One might think that the majority leaders (Senate Leader M. Teresa Paiva-Weed and House Leader Gordon Fox) would take in the next highest amounts; but one would be wrong. The two Finance Committee chairmen came in second; and they were pretty evenly matched, with House Finance Chairman Steven M. Costantino and Senate Finance Chairman Stephen Alves each raking in $110,500. That great political scientist, Willie Sutton, really put his fingers on the pulse when he remarked that he robbed banks "because that's where the money is!"

Rounding out the top 10 recipients of this largess were those labor legislators, Sen. Domenic Ruggerio and Sen. Frank Ciccone III, followed by Rep. Arthur Corvese, chairman of the House Labor Committee, and Rep. Brian P. Kennedy, chairman of the powerful Corporations Committee.

Powerful people are invested in Rhode Island's current predicament, and they don't know how to get out of the predicament while continuing to benefit from their power. So they wait. They hope for money from nowhere. They promise to fix things when times are already improving.

Rhode Islanders are — I think and pray — beginning to wake up to the possibility that things are just going to turn around on their own. Lardaro alludes cryptically to "what's going to happen when a national recovery takes place," and I've suggested before that, if Rhode Island fails to lead the recovery, its the rate at which its talent and taxpayers flee will increase.

October 30, 2008

How Will You Express Your Displeasure With the Decision by the Rhode Island Superior Court to Legalize Bribery in the Legislature?

Carroll Andrew Morse

Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Francis Darrigan ruled yesterday that it is legal for state legislators to try personally to enrich themselves through their votes, or even to cast votes based on bribes that they accept. Bruce Landis has the details in today's Projo.

So now if a sitting Senator – even the Senate President, perhaps – were to decide to support a casino to be built in town X (or in town W; or even in town WW) for no other reason than officials from town WW promising some extra fee-paying legal work to that Senator, that decision to cast a vote based on personal gain is now perfectly legal.

It's one more thing for voters to consider when they cast their votes for state senators and representatives next week: can RI afford to send the current crew of incumbents back into office, now that bribed voting has been given legal sanction by our state's courts?

How Will You Express Your Displeasure With the Decision by the Rhode Island Superior Court to Legalize Bribery in the Legislature?

Carroll Andrew Morse

Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Francis Darrigan ruled yesterday that it is legal for state legislators to try personally to enrich themselves through their votes, or even to cast votes based on bribes that they accept. Bruce Landis has the details in today's Projo.

So now if a sitting Senator – even the Senate President, perhaps – were to decide to support a casino to be built in town X (or in town W; or even in town WW) for no other reason than officials from town WW promising some extra fee-paying legal work to that Senator, that decision to cast a vote based on personal gain is now perfectly legal.

It's one more thing for voters to consider when they cast their votes for state senators and representatives next week: can RI afford to send the current crew of incumbents back into office, now that bribed voting has been given legal sanction by our state's courts?

October 13, 2008

Another Alves Discrepancy

Carroll Andrew Morse

(h/t, Commenter Aldo).

From Talia Buford of the Projo on October 3…

The Supreme Court yesterday ordered the state Board of Elections to recount all ballots cast in the disputed West Warwick Democratic primary race in which political newcomer Michael Pinga defeated state Sen. Stephen D. Alves.

The amended court order mirrors one issued Wednesday in the case of a candidate for state Senate in Warwick, David Bennett, who lost his bid for a place on the November ballot to Erin Lynch in the Sept. 9 primary...

Meanwhile, state Democratic Party Chairman William Lynch Wednesday [October 1] asked the Rhode Island State Police to investigate the registered Republicans who were allowed to vote in the Democratic primaries in both races.

And again from Talia Buford, this time on October 11…
Yesterday, the court gave some insight into its decision. According to Craig Berke, spokesman for the state judiciary, the court withheld its decision on the Alves case because of the call from the state Democratic Party for a state police investigation into the primary. There is no inquiry into the Warwick race.
What is the basis of the Rhode Island State Police investigating one case, but not the other?

October 12, 2008

A Consequence of Pulled Strings

Justin Katz

If, after all of the technicalities are applied, Stephen Alves returns to his seat in the Rhode Island Senate, Rhode Islanders ought to take it as a final straw:

Yesterday, the court gave some insight into its decision. According to Craig Berke, spokesman for the state judiciary, the court withheld its decision on the Alves case because of the call from the state Democratic Party for a state police investigation into the primary. There is no inquiry into the Warwick race.

"The Supreme Court cannot act on the District 9 race at this stage of review by law enforcement, a review that has become public knowledge," Berke said.

The state police said earlier that they were inquiring into the primary, but had not launched a full investigation. On Thursday evening, troopers did speak to selected residents of Msgr. Deangelis Manor in West Warwick to ask them whether they voted in the primary, residents said.

In fewer words, at Democrat leaders' request, the state police are knocking on doors, feeling out the situation (and, I imagine, intimidating voters), so the Supreme Court postponed its decision until after the deadline that would avoid the entire electoral system's being disrupted. Citizens should not take this lightly, and our rulers should know that they're playing with fire.


For clarification: My parenthetical about intimidated voters wasn't meant to suggest any particular behavior on the part of police. I imagine, however, that having state police show up at one's door for some form of inquiry is an intimidating experience of itself.

August 6, 2008

Always Be Prepared

Justin Katz

Touching story in yesterday's Providence Journal: Apparently, the friends of John Cicilline, brother of the Providence mayor, had a little going-to-jail party for him, in order to keep his family from suffering financially from his conviction as a justice-system-manipulating shake-down lawyer. This line added some comic relief:

"It was a nice event to help a guy going through a tough time," said [Lawyer Peter] Rizzo. "Nobody can plan for a federal indictment."

Why not? Families plan for and insure against all sorts of contingencies. Developing some sort of backup would seem to be particularly advisable for somebody knowingly engaged in illegal activities.

August 5, 2008

Royal Dispensations

Justin Katz

One often hears that the speaker of the Rhode Island House is the most powerful politician (along with the Senate president) in the state, but it takes a while to develop an appreciation of what the means. Here, for one indication, is evidence of their royal ability to dispense paid time off without having to face public scrutiny:

As a matter of stated policy, General Assembly employees are "capped at 140 hours of comp time per year." Working the standard 35-hour state workweek, that would be tantamount to a month off.

But, "exceptions can be granted by the speaker or president to exceed the cap," and this year, legislative spokesman Larry Berman acknowledges, the leaders granted an undisclosed number of additional hours, days and possibly weeks to 51 unidentified legislative staffers.

Had they been paid overtime, Berman acknowledges, those payments would be public information.

July 31, 2008

Senator Irons' Flawed Defense

Carroll Andrew Morse

Former Rhode Island Senate President William Irons' initial line of defense against charges brought against him by the Rhode Island Ethics Commission rests, first, on a claim of immunity that has never before been recognized in the law and, second, on a claim that a judge can use an interpretation of the law without precedent to nullify the plain language of the state constitution.

1. According to (most recently) Bruce Landis of the Projo, the Rhode Island Ethics Commission has proceeded against Senator Irons for his casting of votes on legislation that directly affected a company he was taking commissions from, in their view, a violation of state ethics rules...

The Journal reported that Irons received $70,000 in commissions on a Blue Cross health-insurance policy for CVS employees in 2000 and 2001, and another $25,000 in 1999. Irons chaired the Senate Corporations Committee that handles health-care legislation, and opposed a controversial pharmacy-choice bill that Blue Cross and CVS also opposed.
2. The Ethics Commission derives it power to bring such cases from a 1986 amendment to the Rhode Island Constitution (Article III, section 8)...
Ethics commission -- Code of ethics. -- The general assembly shall establish an independent non-partisan ethics commission which shall adopt a code of ethics including, but not limited to, provisions on conflicts of interest, confidential information, use of position, contracts with government agencies and financial disclosure. All elected and appointed officials and employees of state and local government, of boards, commissions and agencies shall be subject to the code of ethics. The ethics commission shall have the authority to investigate violations of the code of ethics and to impose penalties, as provided by law; and the commission shall have the power to remove from office officials who are not subject to impeachment.
3. In defense, the lawyers for Senator Irons claim that the Ethics Commission can have no jurisdiction over official acts of legislators, due to the speech-in-debate immunity for legislators that is an original part of the Rhode Island Constitution (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.
In today's Projo article, Senator Irons' lawyer John Tarantino explains his client's basic position on speech-in-debate immunity vs. the Ethics Commission…
Tarantino said that because the Constitutional Convention delegates didn’t explicitly set aside the legislators’ immunity under the “speech in debate” doctrine, that immunity continues and legislators can’t be prosecuted for the way they vote.
4. The principle of speech in debate immunity is well-established in American jurisprudence. Courts have long held that the immunity extends beyond words spoken in floor and committee session, out to any official act associated with lawmaking. The key affirmation of this principle cited in the Irons case comes from the United States Supreme Court 1972 ruling in United States v. Brewster, where the Court made clear that speech in debate immunity prevented legislators from having their motivations for the votes probed by any branch of government seeking to enforce general statutes...
It is beyond doubt that the Speech or Debate Clause protects against inquiry into acts that occur in the regular course of the legislative process, and into the motivation for those acts.
In other words, as offensive as it may be to the sensibilities of honest citizens, it is established precedent in American law that a legislator cannot be sued or prosecuted under general statute for voting a certain way based on the influence of cold hard cash, instead of concern for the common good.

The Brewster decision was brought into Rhode Island law in 1984 by the Rhode Island Supreme Court in its decision in Holmes v. Farmer.

5. However, in its Brewster ruling, the Supreme Court also made clear that speech in debate immunity did not place the official acts of legislators above every law imaginable. The Brewster decision reaffirmed a principle established six years earlier, in the case of United States v. Johnson, that speech-in-debate immunity did not automatically extend to laws whose specific purpose is regulating the conduct of legislators...

Without intimating any view thereon, we expressly leave open for consideration when the case arises a prosecution which, though possibly entailing inquiry into legislative acts or motivations, is founded upon a narrowly drawn statute passed by Congress in the exercise of its legislative power to regulate the conduct of its members.
6. It's a dubious proposition, at best, to ever allow judges to circumvent the plain language of the Constitution, but in this case, the proper decision is especially a no-brainer:

The 1986 amendment to the Rhode Island Constitution charged the legislature with creating an ethics commission, specifically and narrowly empowered to create rules for the conduct of legislators. At that time the constitution was amended, the applicability of speech-in-debate immunity to laws specifically regulating legislator conduct had not been decided. The inclusion of direct language into the constitution subjecting legislators to Ethics Commission jurisdiction, therefore, resolved an ambiguity in the law -- using the most decisive means our system of government allows, a Constitutional amendment -- without creating any conflict with the existing body of speech-in-debate immunity law.

The only way for a court to rule that speech-in-debate immunity trumps the Constitutionally established powers of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission would be for that court to strike down the plain language of the constitution while ignoring established precedent at the same time. For the sake of the rule of law, let's hope that this attempted double-bank shot by Senator Irons and his lawyers doesn't hit its target.

July 21, 2008

Scott Prevails at Board of Elections. However, Status of Due Process in Rhode Island Still Unclear.

Carroll Andrew Morse

Democratic Party Chairman William Lynch has withdrawn his challenge to Jon Scott’s ballot certification as a candidate for Congress in Rhode Island’s First District. On Friday, candidate Scott was informed by the Board of Elections of the challenge to the Secretary of State's certification, but was not informed of any specific signatures under challenge, nor of any basis for the challenge at all. According to Scott, he was simply informed that an initial hearing would be held on Monday at 10 am.

The lesson here is that if you decide to run against a powerful figure in Rhode Island, you are subject to being summoned before a state board, without being informed of the specific charge against you. Due process rights, apparently in Rhode Island, don’t extend to those who dare challenge the local political aristocracy -- yet ironically enough, protecting people from the aristocracy was one of the reasons that the idea of due process was developed in the first place!

The vagueness of the charge, followed by its immediate withdrawal, makes it pretty clear that Lynch was engaging in an electoral-board version of a strategic lawsuit against public participation (a SLAPP), where the goal is not to win a claim on its merits, but to force a party being sued to expend resources and effort trying to defend themselves. Unfortunately, activities associated with running for office are not covered by the letter of Rhode Island’s anti-SLAPP law, which specifically names the rights of petition and free speech as the activities protected. With political corruption in Rhode Island being what it is, Rhode Island’s good-government forces should seriously consider a campaign to extend SLAPP protections to the right to run for office.

Finally, the fact that the state Board of Elections was ready to follow through on a vague, unspecific charge suggests that things haven’t improved much since March of 2006, when Judge Stephen Fortunato made public note of the BOE's failure to protect the rights of individuals under its jurisdiction…

Fortunato had criticized the Board of Elections at length for failing to address the First Amendment and due-process rights of targets of an investigation or enforcement action.

July 16, 2008

Corruption and a Criminal's Rights

Justin Katz

Regardless of the identity of the alleged harasser, I agree with Will that the timing of Bobby Oliveira's arrest is suspicious. I'd even go so far as to suggest that it's reason for concern, given its Rhode Island political context:

The police yesterday picked up School Committee candidate Robert. T. Oliveira on a year-old arrest warrant, charging him with making harassing phone calls to a Tiverton woman who described herself as an ex-girlfriend. ...

Tiverton police obtained the most recent arrest warrant on June 26 of last year after the woman complained to them about more than one call Oliveira allegedly made to her on her cell phone. ...

A Newport patrolman saw Oliveira jogging on Bellevue Avenue in front of The Elms mansion shortly before 8 a.m. yesterday, said Lt. William Fitzgerald. He said the officer believed an arrest for Oliveira was outstanding and, after confirming his belief, stopped Oliveira and took him into custody. Newport turned him over to Tiverton police around 10:30 a.m. ...

Neither Maltais nor Fitzgerald could specify why it took a year for the police to arrest him on a year-old warrant.

"It's not unusual that some period of time will lapse when someone is wanted on a warrant," said Maltais, who wasn't sure exactly how Newport police knew to pick up Oliveira.

Fitzgerald couldn't speak to the Oliveira case, but said that departments communicate with each other, sometimes by phone and sometimes by teletype. The information is related to patrol officers at roll call, but they may learn about warrants from other sources, he said.

Inasmuch as he'd continued to walk the streets unharassed, Bobby presumably did not know that he was a wanted man. Now, in response to some unknown stimulus, a Newport police officer happened to believe that an arrest was pending for a particular jogger, who happened to be notable on the local political stage.

Speaking from personal experience, I'm sure that the woman who filed the complaint did so with sufficiently credible evidence to justify a warrant, but the story still gives the impression that somebody out there in the state could file a report that could sit dormant until such time as an arrest would be particularly inconvenient, no matter the merits of the charge. Shouldn't even criminals have a right to a timely arrest and fair resolution?

July 10, 2008

Something Pervasive

Justin Katz

I took the call last night to Matt Allen to talk about the RI governance philosophy on display at the Tiverton School Committee meeting this week (segment streamable by clicking here, or download). I'm not sure whether it's a good thing or reason for concern, but I think I'm starting to get the feel of Rhode Island politics.

June 22, 2008

And Just So's You Don't Miss This Nugget

Justin Katz

Be sure to note the closing paragraph of today's Projo article on the last bit of legislation for this year:

The Senate plans to return Thursday to confirm new traffic court magistrate David Cruise, Montalbano's chief of staff, and a new District Court judge, Mary Elizabeth McCaffrey, sister of the Senate Judiciary chairman.

As I stated during my most recent appearance on Matt Allen's Violent Roundtable, I'm much more concerned about this cross-branch nepotism than the governor's hiring of people whom he trusts. Ours may be a part-time legislature, but it's got a full-time spoils system.

June 10, 2008

Stacking the Healthcare Deck

Justin Katz

The state of Rhode Island likes monopolists, it would seem:

The other condition that Tufts needs to change is a state law that says only health plans that did business in Rhode Island in 2001 can take the health status of members into account in setting rates for small groups. As a result, only Blue Cross and United can increase premiums for groups whose members are less healthy.

Changing that rule ought to be an obvious step.

Readers should note that such regulations — questions of bias in their application aside — are one of the reasons that healthcare costs so much.

May 30, 2008

No Comment Necessary

Justin Katz

Not to start the day with cynicism, but I just can't help myself:

On the evening of Wednesday, June 4, The American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL) will travel to Providence with the first Indonesian ACYPL delegation to visit the United States since 2002.

The delegation will visit as part of an 11-day political study tour that began in Washington, D.C., and will be hosted in Rhode Island by State Rep. Peter L. Lewiss (D-Dist. 37, Westerly), a 2007 ACYPL delegate to China.

The delegates' program is designed to promote mutual understanding and introduce them to the American political system at the national, state and local levels. It will also provide them with opportunities to gain perspective on American culture, engage in dialogue on international issues, and forge friendships and professional relationships with American counterparts.

April 24, 2008

Stealing Lunch Money

Justin Katz

Well, the first mistake was treating the government like a free-food delivery service:

The director of the city’s summer lunch program[, Jane Shugrue,] has been fired and the entire administrative staff will not be brought back after a state audit found that the program falsely claimed it had served far more lunches than it actually had over the past two years, and improperly received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of federal reimbursement over that span.

A criminal investigation conducted by Providence police is under way, though city officials would not divulge the details or the targets of the investigation. ...

The program serves lunches to school-age city children at roughly 100 parks and community centers during the summer months. Shugrue has run the program since 1991 and been on staff since 1984. ...

The program is paid for with federal dollars, but administered at the local level.

Small-government conservatives should feel free to take a moment to shake their heads over the obviousness of the risk inherent in pooling money from anonymous taxpayers and creating heart-string ditties to which it may be funneled.

March 19, 2008

Gosh, It's Not Really Here

Justin Katz

Not surprisingly the Prostitution State is also the Corruption State. AG Patrick Lynch has proposed legislation to make the latter illegal:

Amid the drumbeat of alleged public corruption scandals in Rhode Island, state legislators are considering a bill that would for the first time make it a felony to violate the public trust.

Currently — in what may be a surprise to the average Rhode Islander — the state well versed in public corruption has no law that makes such behavior illegal. State and local officials can be charged with bribery or embezzlement and a variety of related charges, but not with outright corruption. ...

The proposed law is modeled on the federal statute that was enacted in 1988, and would apply to public servants at all levels — from elected officials to state, municipal and contract employees. ...

The proposed law is modeled on the federal statute that was enacted in 1988, and would apply to public servants at all levels — from elected officials to state, municipal and contract employees.

March 17, 2008

Possible Reduction Versus Mandatory Revocation

Justin Katz

Commenter Pragmatist notes, in response to my post suggesting the withholding of pensions to the politically corrupt, that such a law already exists. But the Public Employee Pension Revocation and Reduction Act merely makes it possible for the state to take away a pension (or reduce it):

(c) In any civil action under this chapter for the revocation or reduction of retirement or other benefits or payments, the superior court shall determine:

(i) Whether the public employee has been convicted of or pled guilty or nolo contendere to any crime related to his or her public office or public employment and, if so;

(ii) Whether the retirement or other benefits or payments to which the public official or public employee is otherwise entitled should be revoked or diminished and, if so;

(iii) In what amount or by what proportion such revocation or reduction should be ordered.

(2) In rendering its decision hereunder, the superior court shall consider and address each of the following factors:

(i) The fact that the allowance of retirement or other benefits or payments for service under this title, under title 16, under title 45, under title 8, under chapter 30 of title 28, under chapter 43 of title 31, and under chapter 28 of title 42 presumes and requires that the service shall have been honorably rendered;

(ii) The severity of the crime related to public office or public employment of which the public official or public employee has been convicted or to which the public official or public employee has pled guilty or nolo contendere;

(iii) The amount of monetary loss suffered by the public official's or public employee's employer or by any other person as a result of the subject crime related to public office or public employment;

(iv) The degree of public trust reposed in the subject public official or public employee by virtue of his or her public office or public employment; and

(v) Any such other factors as, in the judgment of the superior court, justice may require.

One can imagine an understandable tendency, when faced with an aging employee whose crime might have been one of casually slipping into negligence over the years, toward mitigation under this law. What I'm talking about is a mandatory revocation of pensions whenever the corruption extends beyond a certain dollar and effect limit. (Using a public vehicle to move furniture once in a career wouldn't count, but spending a year's worth of afternoons at the local bar would.)

March 15, 2008

Incentive Against Corruption

Justin Katz

The latest instance of corruption and abuse of position in RI government gave me an idea for legislation:

The Rhode Island State Police have charged a Department of Administration employee with felony embezzlement for allegedly stealing cash from the agency.

The police said an investigation revealed that longtime state employee Patricia Pirolli, 59, of 15 Hill St., North Providence, on several occasions over the past year took unspecified amounts of money that had been collected as registration fees and fines by the department’s Contractors' Registration and Licensing Board.

In her role as chief implementation aide in the Division of Capital Projects and Property Management, Pirolli was responsible for processing the checks, cash and accompanying vouchers after they were collected by clerks.

The state police said once the money and paperwork were turned over to Pirolli she would remove the cash and alter the vouchers to reflect only check payments received for deposit. ...

She has served in her position at the DOA for about four years.

Neal could not provide further details about her prior employment with the state, saying a computer system needed to access that information was unavailable.

So how about a law that would strip government officials and public employees of all claims to pensions if they're convicted of corruption (which would have to be defined in the law)? It might sound draconian for "slipping up" after many years of honest service, but it takes consequences to counterbalance temptation.

February 1, 2008

Burn Down the Mission Courthouse

Justin Katz

Well, this is a no-brainer:

Rep. Raymond C. Church has filed legislation rescinding legislative approval granted last year for a new courthouse in the Blackstone Valley, saying the state shouldn't be borrowing money for large projects when grappling with huge deficits.

"At a time when the state is trying to identify money to close a budget deficit of $171.9 million in the current fiscal year and a structural deficit of $412.3 million next year, it doesn't make sense to take on more debt," said Representative Church, a Democrat who represents District 48 in North Smithfield and Burrillville. "Now is just not the time to start a new project like this. Instead we should be looking for ways we can save money, and not building this courthouse will save about $7 million a year for the next 20 years.

The courthouse, which was approved as part of the state budget for the current fiscal year with funding to begin in Fiscal Year 2009, is estimated to cost about $70 million. If the state were to sell 20-year bonds to finance the project, it would likely double the total cost to $140 million.

Another no-brainer is the ouster of any legislator who actually votes against canceling the courthouse.

January 31, 2008

Being the Homework

Justin Katz

Judging from the Providence Journal's letters section, social work students at Rhode Island College have been given the assignment of denouncing Bill Felkner's January 13 op-ed. Amanda Eyes is the latest "candidate for a master's degree in social work" to make the opinion page, and she contributes the following interesting statistic:

The problem with dialogue about public policy is that few are willing to share the full story. Finding a job in Rhode Island that pays enough to support a family without more than a high-school diploma or its equivalent is impossible. Without some form of post-secondary education or training, minimum-wage jobs are the only option (thanks to many of the manufacturing jobs that are now overseas). According to the Poverty Institute’s published document, the 2006 Rhode Island Standard of Need, the cost of basic necessities, food, clothing, health care, transportation, housing and child care for a family of four requires an annual income of $60,000, or $28.85 an hour.

I'll testify, as the breadwinner for a family of five who makes quite a bit less than $60,000 per year, that this standard of need is probably pretty accurate. Does that make me a candidate for welfare and special programs? I certainly hope not; if such families line up for public handouts, who would be left to finance them?

As I keep endeavoring to explain, that income line is the entry level of the group that is fleeing Rhode Island. They do not want handouts (they couldn't live on them anyway); they want opportunity, and the only way to provide that is to get the public sector out of the way.

January 22, 2008

Lucre for Legislators

Justin Katz

Yesterday's Political Scene shouldn't fly under the MLK Day radar:

Sen. John J. Tassoni Jr., D-Smithfield, was paid $92,606 last year as senior business agent for the largest state employees union: Council 94 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Senate Majority Whip Dominick Ruggerio, D-Providence, was paid $181,041 in salary and benefits as the administrator of an arm of the Laborers International Union known as the New England Laborers Employers Cooperation and Education Trust. ...

On Friday, [Laborers lawyer Darren] Corrente said [Paul E.] Moura [D-East Providence] received $107,323 in pay and benefits from his employer, and [Frank] Ciccone [D-Providence], $151,558 in compensation from the District Council, and $22,944 from Local 808.

Sen. Beatrice Lanzi, D-Cranston, was paid $61,485 as the director of "labor community services" for the United Way of Rhode Island.

MetLife Auto & Home paid close to $50,000 in commissions to insurance agencies where two lawmakers work: $12,566 to Sen. David Bates, R-Barrington, and $35,751 to Rep. William San Bento, D-Pawtucket.

The Beacon Mutual Insurance Company has paid out more than $100,000 in commissions and legal fees for "representing injured workers" to a half-dozen lawmakers, including: $75,435 in legal fees and a $2,398 dividend to Warwick Sen. John C. Revens Jr.’s law office; $2,250 in legal fees to Pawtucket Sen. John F. McBurney III’s law office; a $14,244 agency commission to Bates; $9,220 in legal fees to the law office of Sen. Paul V. Jabour, D-Providence; a $255.82 dividend to San Bento's insurance agency and a $260 "dividend" to Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Paiva-Weed's law firm, Moore, Virgadamo & Lynch.

The Lifespan Hospital network paid $62,686 in salary to former Rep. Peter Ginaitt, and $17,148 under a "yearly pharmaceutical contract" with the Pawtuxet Valley Prescription & Surgical Center owned by Sen. Leo Blais, R-Coventry, who in September sought U.S. Bankruptcy Court protection for the company.

Rep. Elizabeth Dennigan, D-East Providence, who is both a lawyer and emergency-room nurse, was paid $15,602 by the Care New England hospital network.

The New England Cable and Telecommunications Association disclosed spending $1,060 on a dinner held last July at LaForge Casino, the Newport restaurant owned by the late Rep. Paul Crowley. Rhode Island Housing disclosed two dinners totaling $235.59 at Local 121, the popular downtown Providence eatery owned by Sen. Josh Miller.

It's curious how Crowley managed to cull that information away from something that he wanted to highlight. It's almost as if he'd rather keep his audience in the dark.

January 21, 2008

A Question of Process

Justin Katz

Kenny Cicerone, whom I mentioned last week, has some specific allegations against local politicians in North Providence (with details likely to be found on his Web sites) and a question that Anchor Rising readers might be able to answer:

How does an individual or group go about filing ethics complaints against elected officials?

January 18, 2008

Putting Out Fire Code Flare-Ups on a Discretionary Basis

Justin Katz

Any softening of Rhode Island's new wish-list fire code are welcome, but this seems a little too typical of the state's operating practices to inspire comfort:

Senate President Joseph A. Montalbano testified at an open hearing on the code regulation changes that was held last September, to re-emphasize the Senate's position that the code changes do not require General Assembly action.

"The Senate has maintained that this Board has the power and obligation to address implementation issues that arise relative to Rhode Island's updated fire safety code," said President Montalbano at that September hearing. "You (the board) have the ability to analyze technical public testimony, and the guidelines of the Administrative Procedures Act, to formulate a fair and consistent resolution to many of the issues at hand. Any further legislative changes should be viewed solely as a last resort, and only after all regulatory powers are exhausted."

So, after the Station Nightclub fire (for which not a single public official was pegged with any culpability), the legislature enacted a criminally arduous fire code, and now it is giving the unelected RI Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal and Review the power to ease the severity for specific parties or groups at its own discretion. Here's a question: Will the board be held liable if it grants an exception or other form of "relief" and the recipient of that leniency has the tragic misfortune of hosting a fatal conflagration?

January 17, 2008

Blue Cross: Who Is Holding the Bag?

Monique Chartier

In mid-November, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island applied for a 12% rate increase of its direct pay (i.e., non-group) products. Public hearings have been under way.

On December 13, 2007, US Attorney Robert Clark Corrente announced that as a part of Operation Dollar Bill, his office had reached an agreement with Blue Cross "under which the insurer will pay $20 million to resolve matters related to the government’s ongoing public corruption investigation" but that Blue Cross will not "seek any rate increases specifically to recoup the $20 million."

In a Providence Business News article posted December 13, 2007, however, the President of Blue Cross, James E. Purcell states that:

"The actual negotiations have been over the past several months and we concluded them just the other day.”

So Blue Cross was fully cognizent when it applied for this rate hike that it was facing a hefty monetary penalty.

Blue Cross is a non-profit organization. Its prime source of revenue is subscribers. If expenses rise, rates rise. Expenses rose in 2007 by $20million.

Is the substantial fine a part of the reason for the present rate hike request? Is a similarly motivated rate hike request for Blue Cross' other products in the works?

Blue Cross filings in support of the rate hike request lay out an elaborate case that the hike is or will be needed to maintain its reserves. Really? Affidavits by officers, directors and managers of Blue Cross that proceedings from this rate increase will not go towards the $20million fine or to replace existing monies that went to the $20million are not to be found among the filings. On that basis alone, the Health Insurance Commissioner must deny this rate increase request. In fact, unless and until the US Attorney's office reconsiders the $20million fine or correctly redirects it to the guilty parties, the Commissioner has no choice but to deny all future rate increase requests by Blue Cross.

Otherwise, Blue Cross subscribers will be left holding the wrong bag for the brown bag activity of Blue Cross.

January 8, 2008

The Hole We're In

Justin Katz

And the people who keep digging. That's what my latest Providence Journal piece is about. As I said the other day: We're in a race to move the state toward change before the four groups I describe in the op-ed manage to force too many others beyond its borders.

January 5, 2008

We Might Have to Start Another Evidence Box

Justin Katz

Maybe we can plug the state deficit with Ethics Commission fines:

The Ethics Commission voted yesterday to prosecute state senator and union official Frank Ciccone on two charges, but dropped five other charges that his votes in the General Assembly amounted to ethics violations because they benefited unions he works for.

The decision means that in at least some circumstances, union officials who are members of the General Assembly can support legislation that benefits their unions. But commission Chairman James Lynch Sr. said that "this is not a blanket endorsement" for similar actions, and that the commission will deal with future cases one at a time.

The two charges the commission voted to prosecute relate to Ciccone's failure to publicly disclose his income from the Rhode Island Laborers' District Council of the Laborers International Union of North America — where he is president and a field representative and the union's Local Union 808, where he is business manager — for 2005 and 2006.

The Senator claims that it was a "mistake." You know, sort of like just happening to wind up with a half-billion dollar (and climbing) budget shortfall.

December 26, 2007

Consistency of the Mess We're In

Justin Katz

A sure indication that Rhode Islanders are in for a beating? The folks who are in a position to ease the pain of our collapse and recovery have to "talk" about stuff like this:

William R. Guglietta, chief legal counsel for the House Democratic majority leader, is tentatively scheduled to be sworn in as chief magistrate of the Traffic Tribunal next month, but he might not end up with the power to appoint other traffic court magistrates, at least not for long.

State officials are now talking about giving that power to Governor Carcieri or Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams.

The General Assembly created the chief magistrate’s job earlier this year after removing the Traffic Tribunal from under Chief District Judge Albert E. DeRobbio. In doing so, the Assembly gave the chief magistrate a base salary of $132,062, a 10-year term and the power to appoint other Traffic Tribunal magistrates.

Our government officials are clearly in need of a workshop on the concept of "separation of powers" when even the good-government side would allow the executive branch to be left out of the appointment process. As Keven McKenna puts it, "If anybody doesn’t deserve more unconstitutional power, it’s Frank Williams." The chief justice is the poster child for affronts to separation (emphasis added):

Williams, who selected Guglietta for the chief magistrate's job, wrote back to Watson and Gorham on Monday, saying, "I fully understand your concern about these appointments. Allowing the Chief Justice to make such appointments would remedy this concern and provide for uniformity of the magistrate appointment process within the courts. We are presently in the process of working on legislation to address this and other issues relating to magistrates." ...

On Nov. 21, Williams issued an executive order stating that "all magistrates shall be required to take an oath of office and file a written engagement prior to undertaking their duties." The order said, "The oath shall be administered by the appointing authority upon written notice to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court."

Rhode Islanders ought to be getting pretty tired of hearing the phrase "uniformity and consistency" coming from within the halls of our government. More often than not, it seems to mean uniformity of oligarchical power and consistency of policy with their personal preferences and interests.

December 21, 2007

Guess We're Stuck with It, Then

Justin Katz

Could there be a better expression of Rhode Island's erroneous mentality than EMT's comment to Marc's post on the triple-dipper union fireman?

So why is this only OK for union presidents who don't rock the boat?

All you conspiracy theorists REALLY believe that Cicilline didn't feed this straight to the Journal, who are trying to anoint him Governor?

He broke no laws, and he can't even be brought up on department charges because it's been past practice- a key labor law term.

The State Police laughed this out of their office. It's only an issue because the mayor is desperate for leverage against a union that his yes-man Farrell can't dictate to.

I suspect I'm not alone among Anchor Rising types in not caring how this information came to light and in not believing that the same behavior used to be OK.

It's a travesty that it's taking the utter collapse of the state's finances to spur this sort of intra-insider contention. That it appears unique against the historical backdrop indicates how out of kilter Rhode Islnd's public sector has been. Such political wrangling is built into our system precisely to make it in everybody's interest to watch for excesses from everybody else.

It's disheartening that even relatively reasonable pro-union folks can't bring themselves to see the fault in Doughty's behavior.

November 7, 2007

From the Department of Things You Can't Make Up

Carroll Andrew Morse

A gentleman by the name of John B. Webster has identified a line of business he thinks will be successful in Rhode Island: providing "incarceration assistance" to white collar criminals. From the Chicago Sun Times

When John B. Webster was convicted in 2001 for lying to the FBI, he lost his law license and his freedom -- but gained a new career.

Webster is part of a small, specialized industry that advises white-collar criminals heading to the pen….

Webster, 48, who served 13 months for reporting a bogus death threat, has provided "incarceration assistance" to more than 40 people though his company, National Prison & Sentencing Consultants, based in Rhode Island.

I wonder what he thinks the advantages of setting up shop in the Ocean State are.

October 26, 2007

UPDATED - RE: Same as the old Boss?

Marc Comtois

Ian Donnis weighs in with a bit more on the RI Foundation and how it funnels money--donated anonymously--to help fund Providence Mayor Cicilline's administration:

Cianci had departing Rhode Island Foundation chieftain Ron Gallo on his show yesterday. Just a few moments ago, Cianci pointed to how conflicts could arise from the foundation's funding arrangement for Simmon's salary.

In particular, Cianci asserted that GTECH may be contributing to the related fund at the foundation, and he noted how Donald R. Sweitzer, a senior VP at GTECH, is a Democratic fundraiser. (Btw, as I first reported, Mike Mello, Cicilline's former chief of staff, took a job overseen by Sweitzer.)

I need to declare a mea culpa here. Steve Aveson asked me about the Simmons-RI Foundation issue during the roundtable portion of today's taping of Newsmakers. In noting the tension between Cicilline and Yorke, and how Simmons is professionally well-regarded, I concluded that this isn't a huge deal. After thinking about it a bit more, I've changed my mind.

The element of anonymity in funding Simmons's salary is at odds with the good government/transparency philsophy espoused by Cicilline, and it does create at least the potential for conflicts.

UPDATE: Dan Yorke has obtained a few documents related to this issue. First, here are the first two pages (pg.1, pg.2) of the contract between the Providence Fund and Providence city hall Director of Administration John Simmons, which outlines a $3,500/month stipend from the Providence Fund to Simmons. Here are the first two pages (pg.1, pg.2) of the employment agreement between John Simmons and the City of Providence, which stipulates that Simmons will be paid $120,000 for the first year (2003) with $5K raises in year 2 and 3. Currently, Simmons makes around $150,000.

Please note: the salary/compensation numbers in the above documents don't square with the numbers outlined in my previous post, which were based on my own research and those given by other sources. For my part, I used the Director of Administration salary as a base when Simmons is actually the Chief of Administration. I don't know the intricacies of Providence City Government and it appears as if these may be different positions.

UPDATE II: In fact, Simmons was originally hired as a consultant with the title Chief of Administration. Additionally, Dan Yorke cited a 2005 ProJo story by Cathleen Crowley that I found via ProQuest (See extended entry). And now Ian Donnis is reporting that Simmons' salary is now paid for entirely by the City of Providence, though Karen Southern, spokeswoman for Mayor Cicilline, "was unable to identify specifically when the foundation stopped contributing to Simmons' compensation." The question still remains (as the story below shows): who was the single contributor that supported Simmons' salary boost? Here's the relevant excerpt:

When Cicilline was elected, he hired Simmons as a consultant. Cicilline enlisted the Rhode Island Foundation to help pay for Simmons' work and to finance other projects. The foundation created the Providence Government Restructuring Fund, now called the Fund for Providence.

"David Cicilline said, "What I need is some really significant outside assistance, some great advice, some independent review of the structure of city government before I take office,' " said Rick Schwartz, spokesman for the Rhode Island Foundation. "And lots of folks contributed."

About 37 institutions and individuals donated to the fund, including Fleet Bank, Citizens Bank, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, Narragansett Electric, Verizon, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace, Alan Hassenfeld and Frederick Lippitt.

The foundation reviews requests from the city and approves payments, Schwartz said.

"The structure [Cicilline] set up shielded any of the contributors from looking like the old days, which was 'Well, of course we are going to contribute to this because it will do us some good,' " he said.

After six months as a consultant, Cicilline asked Simmons to join the staff as chief of administration.

"Personally, for me to come here, I needed a level of compensation and the mayor was able to get it partially through the city and partially through the Fund for Providence," Simmons said last week.

Cicilline asked the Rhode Island Foundation to help augment Simmons' salary by $42,000 a year and the foundation agreed. In order to avoid any conflict of interest, Schwartz said the foundation found a contributor that didn't have any business before the city and earmarked that donation for Simmons' salary.

"I don't even know who it is," Simmons said.

The foundation refused to identify the source of the donation, saying the contributor wanted to remain anonymous. Schwartz said the donor is a family foundation.

"It's a well-known family. We can't think of any connections to the city that they would benefit from in any way," he said.

Simmons said he answers to the mayor, and nobody else.

Here is the entire story from 2005:

Continue reading "UPDATED - RE: Same as the old Boss?"

October 25, 2007

Same as the old Boss?

Marc Comtois

Dan Yorke has been asking for some media outlet to look into the links between The Rhode Island Foundation and Providence Mayor David Cicilline's administration. According to a 2003 press release, the Rhode Island Foundation set up a contribution structure to the Mayor's Administration via The Fund for Providence:

The Fund was established at The Rhode Island Foundation shortly after the Mayor was elected in November 2003, and provides a mechanism to attract external resources to advance the Mayor’s ambitious agenda for re-energizing and re-shaping city government.

The Fund for Providence is designed to support the development of new initiatives aimed at expanding and improving the delivery of city services. ProvStat, an accountability and tracking system to monitor the performance of city services is one such example of the work supported by the Fund. The Fund is also supporting research, planning, and public engagement strategies around priority issues facing the city and its residents and businesses.

Apparently, that includes helping to pay the salaries of government officials. Ian Donnis had this in a story on Yorke back in January:
Yorke points to how a private fund managed by the Rhode Island Foundation pays a fraction of the nearly $200,000 salary earned by John Simmons, the mayor’s director of administration. While the mayor has said that Simmons’ private-sector experience has yielded millions in savings for the city, through enhanced bond ratings, Yorke calls the arrangement’s partial anonymity at odds with open government and Cicilline’s self-description as a reformer.
Fraction is right. According to the latest City of Providence compensation numbers (PDF, line A18, p. 15), Simmons should be making in the mid-$60K range. Yet the fact that the public doesn't know for sure who exactly funnels money to pay $140K worth of Simmons' salary doesn't bother the Mayor. In a post by Brown Prof. Darrell West in 2004, West reported that Mayor Cicilline defends this setup.
According to Cicilline, the concept is "new to Providence, but not new to cities" around the country. Responding to complaints about possible conflicts of interest between outside donors and the city, the mayor defended the practice and said "we never would have gotten half the things done without this."
So the ends justify the means, right? Didn't someone else get in trouble using that logic?

October 10, 2007

Re: Corrente: Martineau latest to cop a plea

Monique Chartier

US Attorney Robert Clark Corrente reminds us in his October 9 press release

Even though Martineau has signed an agreement to plead guilty, he has not yet entered a plea.

This presumably will happen on Friday, the day Former House Majority Leader Gerard Martineau (D) is scheduled to be arraigned, according to the Providence Journal.

In the meantime, one item in the Plea Agreement caught my eye.

3. The defendant understands that the Government has developed evidence that the defendant also participated in and favorably influenced the outcome of Capital Gains Legislation at the behest of "The Pharmacy", as that term is defined in the Information, while being paid undisclosed income by The Pharmacy ("the Matter under Investigation"). This Criminal Information and Plea Agreement are intended to resolve all criminal charges related to the defendant's conduct as an elected official involving the Pharmacy and the "Health Insurance Company", as that term is defined in the Information, except for the Matter Under Investigation. The Defendant understands that, becausehe is not admitting to any criminal conduct involving Capital Gains Legislation, he may be charged in the future with an offense or offenses related to the Matter under Investigation. The defendant specifically waives any double jeopardy and statute of limitation protection he may have relative to any such charges.

In short, even if the Plea Agreement is formalized on Friday, US Attorney Corrente may not be finished with Mr. Martineau.


The Providence Journal reports this morning:

Six years ago, legislative leaders Gerard M. Martineau and William V. Irons strongly advocated reducing the Rhode Island capital-gains tax.

Martineau, the House majority leader, called it one of his priorities for the 2001 session.

Irons, the Senate leader, told a Chamber of Commerce group that CEOs such as Thomas M. Ryan of CVS deserved tax breaks, because they helped drive Rhode Island’s economy.

Today, the FBI is investigating that 2001 tax bill as part of Operation Dollar Bill, the federal State House corruption probe — one that could lead straight to Ryan, chief executive of the nation’s biggest drugstore chain.


Business leaders tell The Journal that Ryan was a strong advocate for the tax cut.

Ryan knew about Irons’ insurance business — Irons, through his lawyer, has acknowledged to The Journal that he asked his friend Ryan about getting the business. But CVS refuses to say whether Ryan knew about Martineau’s bag contracts, which Martineau was invited to bid on by another, unnamed CVS executive when the drugstore chain was seeking Martineau’s support on legislation.

Nor will CVS say if Ryan had any meetings or conversations with Irons or Martineau about the capital-gains legislation.

“That is part of an ongoing investigation,” said a CVS spokesman. “We have no comment.”

October 4, 2007

Re: The Way It's Done

Monique Chartier

While this post is a reply to Justin's about the controversy surrounding State Senator Stephen Alves and the failed A. Duie Pyle tax incentive, it is also a report on the way things are done in the General Assembly when a citizen is attempting to access information about bills and the legislative process.

In the course of denying the allegations that he blocked a tax incentive for a company looking to locate in Johnston, State Senator Stephen Alves said:

“If it was so important to them, why didn’t anybody come to see me about Duie Pyle or request a hearing? Nobody did.”

So what is the legislative history of the Duie Pyle tax incentive legislation? Was it a stand alone bill or intended to be passed as part of the state budget? And most importantly, did it receive the same treatment as the other two tax incentives that did pass?

I began my attempt this morning to clarify these matters by calling the office of the Secretary of the Senate Finance Committee, Ms. Donna LeBoeuf. I reached instead the Clerk of that committee, Mr. Ernest Balasco, who told me that Ms. LeBoeuf is on vacation this week. He further informed me - this is not news to anyone who follows the General Assembly! - that without a bill number, it will be impossible to track a bill.

I then called the Office of Legislative Data. A woman there attempted to assist me but was unable to find a bill with the words "Duie Pyle" in it. And looking through the forty four articles of the budget as passed would have been pointless because the crux of the Alves controversy is that the tax incentive did not become law.

In the face of all of these non-answers, you ask, why didn't I get some input from one of the proponents of the tax incentive, Senator Christopher B. Maselli, D-Johnston? Good question. It seems, however, that Senator Maselli is one of the few Senators for whom no telephone number is provided on the Senate website.

I have e-mailed Senator Maselli and look forward to hearing from him on this matter.

In the meantime, to summarize. Secretary of that committee on vacation this week. No phone number posted for Senator Maselli, precluding easy contact. And most importantly, a decades old rigid, petrified bill access system designed to shield rather than inform.

Possibly it is paranoia, but I was left with the impression this morning that roadblocks had been added to what is already a difficult research route at the State House so as to prevent the legislative history of this doomed tax incentive from becoming public.


... specific to the Alves/Duie Pyle matter. Subpoenas have gone out. Senator Christopher Maselli received one and will not be answering questions publicly anytime soon:

Maselli has also been subpoenaed to tell his story to the grand jury, which is investigating allegations of influence peddling at the Rhode Island State House.

“Since I don’t want to do anything to hinder the ongoing investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office, I will have no further comment about Duie Pyle,” said Maselli. “I’ve already publicly said everything I know.”

Apparently it will take a Grand Jury to establish the legislative path of these three tax incentives.

Alves' Probable Defense: I'm So Powerful, I Can Kill Any Finance Provision for Any Reason, So Who's to Say I Did It for Corrupt Ones

Carroll Andrew Morse

Senator Stephen Alves defense against allegations that he tried to use his position as Senate Finance Committee chair to compel Rhode Island cities and towns to give him their pension business is taking shape. It looks as if Senator Alves will argue that his committee chairmanship gives him such absolute power over Senate finance matters, he is able to kill any specific item for any reason he wants, making it impossible to prove that the town of Johnston's decision not to do pension business with him was the reason he spiked the Duie-Pyle tax deal.

Mike Stanton, for instance, reports in today's Projo that Senator Alves is suggesting that the failure of lobbyists for Duie Pyle to approach him using proper protocol was enough of a reason for him to kill the deal...

[Senator Alves] said that he wasn’t opposed to the tax break for Duie Pyle, but that advocates for the company failed to lobby him in a timely fashion....

As Senate Finance chairman, Alves helps shape the budget that the House Finance Committee passes, sitting with his House counterpart, Rep. Steven M. Costantino, D-Providence, to hash out what’s in and what’s out. Those meetings are so secretive, said Rep. Jan. P. Malik, D-Warren, that he’s not even allowed to attend — and he’s a vice chairman of House Finance.

“That’s where they barter — ‘I'm looking for this, you're looking for that,'" said Malik. "I can't even get into those meetings. They’re afraid that if word leaks out, then members will find out that they’re not going to get a project they want. By the time it comes out as a document, then it’s too late to start moaning and groaning.”

Doesn't this matter highlight the need for Rhode Island to reform its archaic, 19th century legislative committee system that gives just a few legislators, unaccountable to the whole of Rhode Island, nearly absolute veto power over the matters the legislature can even begin to consider?

Senator Alves' Stout Denial

Monique Chartier

State Senator Stephen Alves has broken two days of silence to firmly deny charges that he blocked a tax incentive out of political revenge. Describing the allegations as "ridiculous and baseless", he called his main accuser, lobbyist Jeffrey Britt, a liar and affirmed that he had never been opposed in principle to the tax incentive for trucking company A. Duie Pyle:

“I never had an objection to Duie Pyle,” said Alves. “It was just never high on our priority list to spend $330,000 on it when we were cutting children off of RIte Care. It was a tough budget year. There were lots of winners and losers, lots of people who were disappointed.

In his appearance on Turn to 10, the Senator denied even soliciting the pension account in question from either the Town of Johnston or Mayor Polisena.

And WPRO's Dan Yorke interviewed him yesterday, though no calls were taken during that hour.

October 2, 2007

Gov. Carcieri Calls for Sen. Alves to Resign the Finance Committee Chairmanship

Carroll Andrew Morse

From Ian Donnis at the Providence Phoenix's Not-for-Nothing blog...

Speaking this morning on the John DePetro Show, Governor Carcieri added his voice to Gio Cicione in calling for state Senator Stephen Alves to resign his Senate Finance Committee chairmanship while he remains under federal scrutiny.

Carcieri called for the state Ethics Commission -- which he has strengthened -- to take a harder line in policing potential conflicts of interest involving legislators.

October 1, 2007

Consider the Children's Dreams

Justin Katz

Helen Glover feels for Stephen Alves, in a way similar to this frightening guy's feelings for Britney Spears.

The Way It's Done

Justin Katz

This definitely has a very Rhode Island ring to it:

When a family-owned Pennsylvania trucking company announced plans early this year to build a New England distribution center in Johnston and create 120 well-paying jobs, Governor Carcieri and Mayor Joseph M. Polisena hailed it as an economic triumph.

But when tax-incentive legislation to help lure the company to Rhode Island went up to the State House, it ran into an unexpected roadblock — Sen. Stephen D. Alves, D-West Warwick, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Now, the FBI is investigating whether Alves killed the measure to punish Polisena for not investing Johnston pension funds with Alves, a stockbroker.

The federal investigation is part of a larger probe of the possible intersection of Alves’ private investment business with his public office — a probe that has reached into Johnston, Woonsocket, Cranston, Lincoln and Alves’ hometown of West Warwick, according to officials in those communities. ...

A UBS spokeswoman in New York said Friday that the company is “cooperating fully” with the investigation, but declined to elaborate. She confirmed that Alves has left UBS, but would not say why.

I have no idea how the FBI would prove such a thing. In some places, the controversy would be enough to cost Alves his position, as it may have cost him his job. In Rhode Island... well, in Rhode Island, I suspect we'd be surprised how few people in West Warwick know who he is.

The Way It's Done

Justin Katz

This definitely has a very Rhode Island ring to it:

When a family-owned Pennsylvania trucking company announced plans early this year to build a New England distribution center in Johnston and create 120 well-paying jobs, Governor Carcieri and Mayor Joseph M. Polisena hailed it as an economic triumph.

But when tax-incentive legislation to help lure the company to Rhode Island went up to the State House, it ran into an unexpected roadblock — Sen. Stephen D. Alves, D-West Warwick, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Now, the FBI is investigating whether Alves killed the measure to punish Polisena for not investing Johnston pension funds with Alves, a stockbroker.

The federal investigation is part of a larger probe of the possible intersection of Alves’ private investment business with his public office — a probe that has reached into Johnston, Woonsocket, Cranston, Lincoln and Alves’ hometown of West Warwick, according to officials in those communities. ...

A UBS spokeswoman in New York said Friday that the company is “cooperating fully” with the investigation, but declined to elaborate. She confirmed that Alves has left UBS, but would not say why.

I have no idea how the FBI would prove such a thing. In some places, the controversy would be enough to cost Alves his position, as it may have cost him his job. In Rhode Island... well, in Rhode Island, I suspect we'd be surprised how few people in West Warwick know who he is.

September 19, 2007

A Land Bereft of Models

Justin Katz

I didn't realize that it was so hard to find models and/or fireman and policeman hats:

The sculptor who made the 9/11 memorial that became the center of attention after Mayor Charles Lombardi buffed out the likenesses of two former public safety officials from the granite surface spoke out yesterday, saying that while he understands the mayor's motivation he does not think it ethical to alter an artist's work after it has been dedicated. ...

"It didn't matter to me whose face I used," [Anthony Longo] said. "It was a composite, and to me any random face would do."

But Longo said finding someone to pose turned out to be harder than he expected. "I tried to get my nephew who is a police officer in Johnston, but he wasn't available. As time grew short I was getting desperate."

He said he was explaining his problem to an acquaintance at a restaurant when someone said he should try getting the chief, because "he should have a fireman's hat."

Longo said that when he was explaining his problem to Bursie, who also serves as the town's director of special projects, he asked him in desperation, "'Frank, do you have a policeman’s hat? Can I use you?' Frank said he guessed he could pose."

Knowing artists and having done artistic-type stuff myself, I've found a surprisingly common feeling that commissioned work is the property of the commissioner, with nothing unethical about changes. Mr. Longo might have me, though, when he notes that "what he did was not unlike what Michelangelo did when he used faces of local Roman citizens to create the images in the Sistine chapel." Apparently, there were no local citizens available for Longo's use, so he had to resort to public officials.

Happens all the time. At least Longo now knows that one often gets into trouble by listening to that sneaky "someone" guy.

September 18, 2007

A Rhode Island No-Brainer

Justin Katz

In what sort of environment could anyone possibly find it acceptable to place the faces of two local (and living!) officials on a monument to others who died heroically in a distant city?

A decision by Mayor Charles Lombardi to remove the likenesses of two of the town’s former public safety officials from the town’s 9/11 Memorial has drawn outcries from several members of the Town Council, who want the mayor to restore the engravings at his own expense.

The 7-foot-high monument in Evans Field was installed and dedicated two years ago by the town’s then-mayor, A. Ralph Mollis, who is now the secretary of state. Until a week or so ago, the granite slab included, among other things, the likenesses of then-Fire Chief Stephen Catanzaro and Frank Bursie, who was serving under Mollis as a police commissioner.

Call the two men "models" if you like, but the New Yorkers who told Mayor Lombardi that "so many people died [that] it would be wrong to have them represented by two individuals" would be right to suggest that the necessity for models ought to have alerted those involved in the project that even giving faces to the representations — let alone faces of acting officials — might be inappropriate.

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.)

Mr. Montalbano...

Justin Katz

... becomes probably the last person in Rhode Island to admit the obvious:

Resolving months of legal back and forth, state Senate President Joseph Montalbano today settled the ethics case against him for a $12,000 civil penalty. ...

Montalbano was accused of engaging in a conflict of interest by voting to put a casino proposal before voters while he was profiting from legal work for the town of West Warwick involving real estate neighboring the proposed casino site.

$12,000 doesn't strike me as too example-setting of a penalty, but at least now we can stop hearing his lawyer's dangerously delusional arguments for the guilty man's innocence.

February 12, 2007

Trying to Blunt the Impact of "Special-interest solons"

Marc Comtois

I thought it worth noting the item "Special-interest solons" from today's Political Scene column in the ProJo:

[Rep. Douglas W.] Gablinske [D-Bristol]...recently asked the state Ethics Commission to address this question: “how full-time union employees, who are also legislators, are able to promote union interests through legislation.”

In a letter to the commission, Gablinske said the answer the commission’s staff lawyer Jason Gramitt gave lawmakers at an ethics refresher course last month at the State House “was less than satisfactory to me.” (Gramitt’s answer at the time: “If they are just employees or there’s a class-exception that applies, the code as it is currently written in most cases will allow that kind of action.”)

In his letter, Gablinske said: “It’s quite one thing for a mason or carpenter who happens to belong to a union and is also a legislator to be ‘class exempted’ when dealing with union/legislative conflicts; however, it is quite another when the sole purpose of the legislator is to promote ‘union legislative interests’ over the ‘general interest of the taxpayers.’ ”

While both the Ethics Commission and the General Assembly have the power to tighten the code, “for objective reasons, I think it best the commission deals with it,” he wrote.

Democrat Gablinske is raising a variation on a question Republican Governor Carcieri posed in a Sept. 20, 2006, letter to the commission. Carcieri suggested the adoption of clear ban on voting by a legislator “on any measure that affects a business or industry from which the legislator (or a member of his or her immediate family or business associates) receives more than a minimal amount of his or her income.”

Carcieri did not focus on union employees alone. In his letter to the commission, he wrote: “Every year, paid union representatives vote on legislation — including the state budget — that directly impacts their employers. Criminal attorneys vote on changes to the criminal code. And insurance brokers vote on bills that would change how we regulate the insurance industry. Voting on a bill that directly impacts the person or business that is signing your paycheck is an obvious conflict of interest.”

Gramitt late last week said he would give copies of Gablinske’s letter to the Ethics Commission members at their next meeting later this month and “they can decide whether they want to throw it into the hopper with the other things they are discussing regulation-wise …”

Kudos to Rep. Gablinske for exercising a bit of good-government, watch-doggedness. Add him to the list of Democratic "solons" who "get it" (at least in this respect).

February 11, 2007

Watching the Senate: Election Reform

Marc Comtois

The Senate appears to be willing to tackle a couple issues that certainly seem to foster political corruption. S 0283, proposed by Senators Gibbs, Bates, Cote, Blais, and Breene, would amend the currently defined procedure for voting:

Each person desiring to vote shall, before receiving his or her ballot, state his or her name and residence, including that person's street address, if he or she has any, and shall present one form of identification that bears the name, address and photograph of the person desiring to vote or two (2) different forms of identification that bear the name and address of such person to the pair of bi-partisan supervisors, who shall then announce the name and residence in a loud and distinct voice, clear and audible. {New language in italics}
Additionally, the same group of senators has also proposed a new non-binding referendum, S 0293:
There shall be submitted to the qualified electors of the state of Rhode
Island at the next general election for their approval the following non-binding referendum question: "Shall 'straight party master levers' and 'straight party computer ballot marks' and all programming equipment related thereto, be removed from all voting equipment?"
Now, the first is clearly an idea whose time as come. As for the second, while I'd rather see the "straight party" thing go away now, I will give it to this group of senators for their willingness to put it before the voters. In fact, I'd say these senators, many of who also sponsored legislation on illegal immigration and charter schools, are some of the more forward-thinking in the senate. That being said, I'll pass final judgment when and if these measures are enacted.

February 2, 2007

Post-Celona: Who are the Suspect Seven?

Marc Comtois

Sounds to me like there may be a few nervous lawmakers up on the Hill:

Shudders, dread, curiosity — and what several lawmakers called sadness — permeated the State House yesterday amid warnings by the state’s top federal prosecutor that the John Celona influence-peddling scandal had already spawned “active” corruption investigations against seven other politicians and seven corporations.

“Is this as extensive as Plunder Dome?” asked WPRO radio host Ron St. Pierre in a reference to the infamous Providence City Hall corruption probe that sent former Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. to federal prison.

“It’s bigger,” U.S. Attorney Robert Clarke Corrente responded during an on-air interview yesterday morning.

Yikes! And who could be involved?
Wandering in and out through the day, in a building where gossip and speculation are viewed as valuable commodities, State House denizens traded their lists of potential targets, which included lawmakers past and present and other prominent names in the political community.

“I know most of the people mentioned have been in the Senate,” said Fox. Still, “it does weigh on you — we are all human beings — who those seven politicians are. Obviously, everyone is speculating. But I have no idea who they may be, whether they are current, former or what. Or even if they are General Assembly members.”

But I'll bet that they're probably all Democrats. If I'm wrong, I'll say so, but the basic demographics of RI's political system would lead even the most naive, unpolitical citizen to figure that out. But we'll see.