November 22, 2005

Sheldon Whitehouse and the Appearance of Corruption

Carroll Andrew Morse

As Rhode Island’s Attorney General, Sheldon Whitehouse joined an amicus brief in support of upholding campaign finance reform laws. The reason? According to the brief, it was “essential to the health of our national democracy” to attack “the causes of cynicism and distrust that undermine our political discourse”.

Sometime between joining that brief and now, Whitehouse appears to have changed his mind. His response to Guy Dufault's personal attack on Governor Don Carcieri shows a decided lack of concern about cyncism and distrust undermining political discourse. According to Monday’s Political Scene column in the Projo

Former Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse does not intend to return the more recent $2,000 Dufault contributed to his Senate campaign. Why?

This response from Whitehouse spokesman Michael Guilfoyle: "Sheldon does not condone what Guy said and he doesn't believe there is any room in the political dialogue for the politics of personal destruction....It was a terrible mistake, and Guy is paying a considerable price."

But "this is between Guy Dufault and Don Carcieri," Guilfoyle said.

One side works in the public interest while another side uses the politics of personal destruction to pursue special interests. And Sheldon Whitehouse views it as a personal conflict and can’t choose between the two.

Courts approved campaign finance limitations on political activity because they found a compelling government interest in preventing the appearance of corruption. Does Sheldon Whitehouse really believe that taking big money from a lobbyist prepared to use rumor and innuendo to advance his interests is unrelated to the appearance of corruption? If Whitehouse is still interested in preventing the appearance of corruption, he should exhibit some personal responsibility in this matter and give Dufault's money back.

Apparently, leadership to Whitehouse doesn't mean taking responsibility yourself; it just means placing limits on other people.

Political Scene reports that Whiltehouse’s primary Matt Brown has returned recent campaign contributions from Dufault, as has lieutenant governor and gubernatorial candidate Charles Fogarty.

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I give both Matt Brown and Lt. Gov. Fogarty credit for doing what I'm sure many Democrat Party insiders would not have done, which is to give back Guy's "hard earned" money, which comes from who know's where.

At least it shows that they have some minimal standards of decency. For most people, it wouldn't be a difficult decision either. Apparently, Sheldon is trying hard to portray himself as the "establishment" Democrat candidate in 2006, so he can convince all the other party insiders to give him more money.

Instead of "WWJD" (What would Jesus do?), Sheldon uses "WWBSD" (What would Bruce Sundlun do?). I think at some point, Sheldon will eventually cave, because of increased outside pressure; not because of his own conscience. If Sheldon wants to associate himself with the likes of Guy Dufault, who are we to stop him? :)

Posted by: Will at November 22, 2005 1:27 AM

You beat me to the punch Will.
I had exactly the same reaction.
Sheldon Whitehouse is a Sundlun guy and people don't come much more immoral than Bruce Sundlun.

Posted by: Tim at November 22, 2005 7:58 AM

If memory serves, Sheldon Whitehouse awarded the lead paint lawsuit on a NO-BID basis. I'm not sure that the details of the arrangement were ever released - i.e., what percentage the contingency fee was (which likely would have been considerably lower had it been put to competitive bidding).

The whole thing stinks to the high heaven. Note the following 2001 entry from - PAY PARTICULAR attention to the status of the local partner of (now) Motley-Rice, and his concurrent status with the RI Democratic Party!!

Funny the ProJo never seems to have picked up on this:

June 7 -- Ness monster sighted in Narragansett Bay. Bad enough that Rhode Island, with its insider-dominated political system, has failed to shake its reputation as the "Louisiana of the North". (See, e.g., Mark Sappenfield, "Legacy of scandal mars Rhode Island", Christian Science Monitor, April 11). But will Little Rhody become the first state to auction itself off to out-of-state trial lawyers? You start wondering after reading Forbes's recent cover story on the nation's richest tort law firm, Charleston, S.C.-based powerhouse Ness Motley (tobacco, asbestos, etc.), and its branch office in Providence, opened some years ago by partner John J. McConnell Jr. Ness Motley has quickly made itself "Rhode Island's largest political contributor, at $540,950 for the 2000 national elections", and its local partner McConnell has become treasurer of the Democratic party in the tiny state. By one of these coincidences that are so rare in novels but so common in real life, Rhode Island Democratic attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse, considered ambitious for a gubernatorial run, in 1999 awarded the Ness firm a contingency fee contract to sue on behalf of the state seeking money from former makers of lead paint -- the only one of the fifty state AGs thus far to take such a step. If the firm and its superlawyer Ron Motley succeed in convincing cities, school districts and other governmental units to follow suit, they might extract billions from such companies as Arco, ICI Glidden, and American Cyanamid. "In April, in a major victory for Motley, a Rhode Island Superior Court judge rejected the defendants' motion to dismiss, and Sherwin-Williams' stock dropped 21%." (Michael Freedman, "Turning Lead Into Gold", Forbes, May 14 (reg)). Dueling websites: (defendants) and (Ness Motley)[more on lead paint litigation tomorrow] (DURABLE LINK)

Posted by: Tom W at November 22, 2005 11:20 AM

BTW, here's the direct link to the post from above:

Posted by: Tom W at November 22, 2005 11:23 AM

Amazing what a little “Googling” will turn up. Note the following (link to the original appears first):

Perverting The Legal System: The Lead-Paint Rip-Off

By Stuart Taylor Jr., National Journal
© National Journal Group Inc.
Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2003

… Rhode Island's pending suit against Sherwin-Williams, DuPont, Arco, American Cyanamid, ConAgra Foods and three other big companies is representative. It got started in 1999, when a law firm then called Ness, Motley, Loadholt, Richardson Poole -- a South-Carolina-based firm flush with hundreds of millions of dollars from suing tobacco companies for state attorneys general -- approached then-Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a Democrat who was interested in running for governor. (He ran, and lost, last year.) The approach was made, Whitehouse has testified, by John J. McConnell Jr., of Ness Motley's office in Providence, McConnell is also the state Democratic Party's treasurer. Ness Motley has been among the biggest campaign contributors in Rhode Island.

Whitehouse signed an unusual retainer agreement with Ness Motley and another firm. It not only guaranteed the lawyers a contingent fee of 16.67 percent of any money recovered, plus all litigation expenses, it also gave them considerable control over whom to sue, what to claim, whether to settle, and on what terms. In other words, Whitehouse delegated a share of the state's sovereign power to a law firm whose best-known partner, Ronald L. Motley, had vowed that he would bring the paint industry to its knees within three years or give up his 156-foot yacht. Never mind the conflict between the interests of the lawyers in huge fees and the interests of Rhode Island's people, who might, for example, be misled and alarmed by the lawyers for their state, who claim that old lead paint in school buildings is a big threat to the students …

Posted by: Tom W at November 22, 2005 11:45 AM

Good background on Ness Motley...the vast majority of Rhode Islanders have never heard of the firm or its role in the lead paint lawsuit. I learned alot from this posting. This would have been a great Projo expose.

I'm glad to see Whitehouse didn't return Dufault's contribution. He'll have to explain the decision in the future.

Posted by: Anthony at November 22, 2005 12:46 PM

Tom W.,
Simply put, excellent work!

Posted by: Marc at November 22, 2005 1:54 PM


Most interesting indeed. I'm sure someone on our side will be able to make good use out of all that!

Posted by: Will at November 22, 2005 2:01 PM

And does anyone wonder why Sheeler is making campaign finance reform a platform issue in this campaign?

Take a look at the sources of donations to ALL the candidates. Even our fair haired native son Linc has accepted donations from those with ties to Halliburton. So what does this say?

Posted by: Claudia at November 24, 2005 7:03 AM