PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Rhode Island taxpayers are footing the bill for a government car with a state-employed driver that transported Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed home from the Democratic Party's biggest bash of the year, a Target 12 investigation reveals.
Target 12 requested details on how often Senate leaders take the state vehicle to or from campaign events, but officials said they have no official policy on how the car can be used and they don't keep a log of its trips.
Both Paiva Weed and House Speaker Gordon Fox have taxpayer-funded cars, but only Paiva Weed was spotted by Target 12 getting picked up at government expense from a partisan event: the Rhode Island Democratic Party Unity Dinner on Oct. 11, which was headlined this year by Mass. Congressman Barney Frank.
Party Chairman Ed Pacheco's invitation said speakers at the dinner, held at Wright's Farm in Burrillville, would "give rousing addresses to inspire Ocean State Democrats as the clock ticks down to Election Day."
Hundreds of politicians and activists gave the Democratic Party $35 to $1,500 in exchange for a ticket to the dinner. Paiva Weed gave $1,500, making her a "sponsor" of the event, campaign finance reports show.
Target 12's investigation reveals a state employee drove Paiva Weed's government car to the Burrillville fundraiser, then waited for an hour and a half until she left. The employee then drove Paiva Weed 48 miles across Rhode Island – a one-way trip that took more than an hour – to her home in Newport.
From there the state employee turned around and drove another 34 miles the vehicle back to the State House in Providence, dropping the Senate car off there at approximately 10:30 p.m.
Paiva Weed admitted to Target 12 that she occasionally has the Senate car pick her up at partisan events but said she does so only on days when she has other events to attend in an official capacity. In the case of the Oct. 11 party dinner, she said a colleague inititaly drove her from the State House to Burrillville in a private car.
"The policy that I have had in office has been [to] go in a private vehicle if there is a political event and be picked up at the political event to be brought home," Paiva Weed said. "In the case of the Unity Dinner my policy was no different."
She added: "I want to be clear, I don't use the car for political purposes and on occasions when I am dropped off or picked up – it would be a very rare occasion." Other senators can use the car with permission.
From lease to own
Paiva Weed said she has access to the Senate car in lieu of a small stipend most state senators and representatives receive for fuel. However, a spokesman later confirmed lawmakers only get reimbursed for trips to and from the State House on days when the General Assembly is in session, and not for other travel.
Records indicate the Senate vehicle and its twin assigned to the House speaker – each a dark-colored Ford Explorer with tan trim – were leased new in 2007, then purchased outright in July 2010. Taxpayers spent $58,915 to buy them, and lawmakers have budgeted $7,500 for their annual maintenance costs this year.
The $7,500 budget for the cars does not cover the cost of gas or wages and benefits for the legislative staffers authorized to drive them.
The General Assembly's total budget in 2011-12 was $41.6 million, about half of which is controlled by the five-member Joint Committee on Legislative Services and isn't itemized for public review.
The Senate president's car has logged nearly three times as many miles as the House speaker's over the last five years, according to records obtained by Target 12 from the joint committee. The Senate car's mileage was 79,975 miles as of Nov. 1, while the House car's was just 28,554 miles.
John Marion, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, expressed surprise at the existence of the taxpayer-funded vehicles and criticized their use for rides from political events.
"This is clearly an abuse of one of the perks of office, the perks of leadership," Marion said. "These cars should be used for official business. They shouldn't be used for party politics in any way."
Marion compared the Senate and House cars to other resources lawmakers can use to reinforce their positions, such as Capitol TV and legislative grants. "This is just another example I think of those perks that we've been seeing used to protect their power," he said.
Perk unique to Rhode Island
In giving their legislative leaders a government car and driver, Rhode Island taxpayers are more generous than their neighbors to the north and south.
In Massachusetts – which, unlike Rhode Island, has a full-time legislature – House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Theresa Murray are not provided with a taxpayer-funded vehicle, DeLeo's spokesman told Target 12. Any vehicle or driver for the legislative leadership must be paid for out of their campaign funds, the spokesman said.
The same is true in Connecticut, which has a part-time legislature as Rhode Island does; legislative leaders in Connecticut do not have a government car.
Paiva Weed, a Newport Democrat, succeeded Joseph Montalbano as Senate president in November 2008 after he lost his re-election bid. Paiva Weed said she inherited the government vehicle from Montalbano, though the decision to buy instead of lease happened after she took power.
"It was a tradition when the vehicle was acquired in 2007, prior to me becoming the Senate president," she said. "If in fact it came time to acquire a new vehicle … I would give some consideration that maybe we no longer need a state vehicle."
Payroll records indicate the Senate car's primary driver is a legislative assistant who earns a base salary of $39,000.
Target 12's investigation found the state workers authorized to drive the vehicle would often wait in the car while she attended a luncheon meeting or event. Paiva Weed said they do other work for her office, as well.
Speaker says he's cautious
While tracking the use of both vehicles, Target 12 spotted House Speaker Fox using the House car to attend a meeting in Cranston and to eat lunch on Federal Hill, with the driver waiting for Fox until he finished in both instances. But Fox was not seen using the vehicle to get a lift to or from partisan events.
"Clearly during the campaign season I never use it," Fox said. "I am very sensitive to that."
The speaker also donated $1,500 to sponsor the Unity Dinner but was unable to attend the event, according to his spokesman. Target 12 did spot Fox at other fundraisers, but he took his personal car on those occasions.
Paiva Weed said in the past she's purchased gas cards with her own money if the vehicle was going to be used for non-official business, but she couldn't say whether she did so on the night of the Unity Dinner.
Fox said he's never heard about a policy of using personal funds to buy gas cards for the legislative cars.
"You try to really use it for official business," Fox said of his official vehicle. "I know staff will use it to pick up supplies, or whatever."
Paiva Weed pointed out that other constitutional officers are provided with a state vehicle for transportation, including Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who is driven in a government SUV by a state trooper assigned as his security detail.
Providence Mayor Angel Taveras is also provided with a vehicle driven by a rotating crew of city police officers. Aides to Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts and Treasurer Gina Raimondo confirmed they have state-funded cars, as well. A spokesman for Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis did not respond to an email.
"The car is used strictly for official state business," Roberts spokeswoman Maria Tocco told Target 12.
Attorney General Peter Kilmartin also has a vehicle at his disposal. The 2011 GMC Arcadia was purchased using forfeiture funds, according to spokesperson Amy Kempe, at no cost to taxpayers. The office spent just over $8,800 last year on gas and repairs.
Kempe said there is no driver specifically assigned to the vehicle - Kilmartin often drives himself - but staffers will sometimes drive the car for the Attorney General.
Copyright WPRI 12
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