Friday, June 5, 2015

RI Leaders Mattiello and Paiva Weed Refuse to Disclose

Rhode Island's former Assembly Speaker Gordon Fox went to jail on corruption, misuse of campaign funds, and bribery, one year after the FBI raided the statehouse, Fox's office, and his home. He resigned from the speakership, refused to take any questions, then stepped down at the end of his term in 2014.

One year later, and Fox finally got taken from the henhouse to the Big House.

The demand of accountability has reached a tsunami-like pitch in Rhode Island.

Yet,  in spite of the embarrassing rush of cronyism drowning the Ocean State, the current assembly Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and the still-standing state senate president Teresa Paiva Weed are not disclosing their accounts.

How far does the stench of backroom deals, misuse of funds, and outright misappropriations stink up the Rhode Island General Assembly?

M.Teresa Paiva Weed

WPRI reports:

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s highest-ranking lawmakers have refused repeated requests to release information about their political spending accounts, despite their calls for more accountability in the wake of a federal investigation that led to the arrest of former House Speaker Gordon Fox.

How tone-deaf can people be? Really? The FBI storms the statehouse, and the new leadership refuses to cooperate on reforms, and rejects transparency outright.

In a March 27 request, Target 12 asked all 112 current members of the General Assembly – one House seat is currently vacant – to provide a December 2014 bank statement for their campaign finance accounts. But House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed said they “strongly believe that bank statements are not public record.”

Nicholas Mattiello

They are public record only if they have nothing to hide, certainly. "They strongly believe"? Men and women believed that the earth was flat at one time, and the most perverse of public miscreants to some extent justify their abuses of power. Legal authority is not about personal preferences. What cares what the two leaders believe?

Excuse me? No, the money that elected officials spend on their politics is absolutely a matter of public record. The double-standard hypocrisy is just too much to take in. Democrats around the country are screaming for greater accountability in the political funding and campaigning processes, and yet the top two legislative leaders in this state refuse to budge, even when the vast majority of their colleagues seemed ready to acquiesce to press requests.

As with many politicians in the Ocean State, it looks like hide, and no matter how much the press may seek, they won't reveal one thing.

On the same day of the request, Mattiello emailed a statement – which was also signed by Paiva Weed – to every member of the House, with a subject line that read “Official response to Channel 12.”

So now they tell each member what they can and cannot say. So much for representatives actually representing their constituents.

“We support legislation currently before the House and Senate related to campaign finances,” the two leading lawmakers wrote in the email to their colleagues. “One bill, H 5789, makes it very clear that the bank account statement expense report ‘shall not be deemed a public record pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 2 of Title 38 (the Open Records Law).’”

So, the two leaders will behave badly until they change the law, then they won't be guilty of any wrongdoing. This whole miasma sounds just like former Speaker Fox, acknowledging his ties to the 38 Studios deal, yet refused to recuse himself from investigations.

So, Paiva Weed and Mattiello are expecting the state at large to take their word, then lay down the law so that what "they strongly believe" will become law. Reminds me of kids taking the cookies out of the cookie jar, then taping their name to the outside afterwards, and telling Mommy: "See? They were ours all along, anyway!"

The motto "quid custodiet ipsos custodies" (Who will watch the watchers themselves?) issue has taken a turn for the absurd in Rhode Island. The watchers are watching everyone else, to make sure that no one can watch them.

Current Rhode Island law requires all elected officials, candidates, political parties and political action committees to submit quarterly campaign reports to the R.I. Board of Elections, but those groups are not required to provide bank statements to accompany their filings.

In other words, when state lawmakers disclose the amount of money they have in their campaign accounts, the Board of Elections has no way of ensuring that those statements are accurate.

What do the elected leaders have to fear? Oh brother. What is the point of transparency if no assurance exists that those statements are accurate, factual, or even remotely true? WPRI then explains why this limitation on reporting accuracy matters:

That loophole allowed Fox, a Democrat, to take $108,000 from his campaign account between 2008 and 2014, illegally using the money on personal expenses – including purchases at Tiffany’s, Urban Outfitters and the Warwick Animal Hospital – then filing misleading reports with the Board of Elections, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

No wonder people are jaded about politics in Rhode Island, or about quarterly statements of themselves. Even with the current election laws in place, no one really knows what money these representatives have on hand, where the money has gone, or whether they are wasting it on extra-campaign activities.

Following Fox’s guilty plea, both House and Senate leadership pledged to reform the state’s campaign finance reporting laws. Mattiello said at the time he’d be open to having his disclosures audited and said, “I’m sure that most of our members would feel that way.”

Mattiello pledged to reform the laws, then backs off with "let's open up and talk about". No, either the leadership does something about the misuse of funds, or they do not. All these gray areas amount to why so much corruption persists.

“I don’t audit all of my members’ reports, and evidently nobody else does,” Mattiello said at the time.

Mattiello shouldn't anyone's anything, but the rest of Rhode Island can and should.

John Marion, executive director of good government group Common Cause Rhode Island, said he doesn’t see why lawmakers would refuse to release information that should mirror the campaign account information they are required to disclose. He noted that candidates for office often agree to release their tax returns even though those aren’t a public record either.

Yes, indeed. If there is nothing to hide, then there is no reason to hide. Yet the leadership chooses to seclude their campaign information.

“This is I think an analogous situation,” Marion said. “You’re not asking for a public record, but because of recent scandals dealing with campaign finance, you’re asking for the backup documentation proving that what they say, the reporting is actually true.”

It's time to tie a tight leash on how candidates raise and spend money in Rhode Island. The corruption has become not just rampant, but embarrassing. Does it have to endanger lives, too? There is nothing wrong with the public having access to information to justify the reports. It's all about affirming. "Trust but verify" was Ronald Reagan's motto, and a fitting tenet for campaign reform.

Marion said the message sent from Mattiello and Paiva Weed will likely deter many lawmakers from responding to Target 12’s request for their own campaign bank statements.

Monkey see. Monkey do.

“The Senate president and speaker of the House have a lot of power to punish members who don’t go along with what they want: legislative grants, committee assignments, literally parking spaces,” Marion said. “So anything that comes down from the third floor of the State House really has a big impact on the rank and file.”

Monkey don't play along. Monkey get punished.


What can one say about the Fourth Estate in Rhode Island? They did the right thing pushing for more information, setting up this conversation. The press demand answers, seek information, want to know what the state lawmakers are doing, how they are spending their campaign dollars. Within a few months, one former lawmaker goes to prison, and another gets convicted with a suspended sentence for misusing campaign funds. This pattern of political malfeasance cannot be ignored.

And yet, the statehouse speaker and state senate president refuse to disclose the bank statements on their war chests.

Still, beyond asking, has the Providence media done anything more besides request once, then get rebuffed?

Can't the local press do better than "Pretty please show us how you are spending your campaign dollars?

One more question:

Will Gordon Fox have former legislative colleagues joining him jail very soon?

1 comment: