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.