PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - The executive director for good government group Common Cause Rhode Island said the Target 12 investigation "Who You Know" highlights why government agencies need to take the public records law more seriously.
"Some [police] departments are very good and some departments aren't," said John Marion of Common Cause. "It might quite simply depend on the person you're dealing with on the day you're dealing with them."
Marion's group has been advocating for better public records education and a strengthened law for years. The problem, he said, is it's not "sexy" for legislators or the public.
"It doesn't hit anybody in the pocketbook, it doesn't raise your taxes, it doesn't have to do with pensions," Marion said. "It's just not in the forefront of people's mind."
In "Who You Know," Target 12 raised questions about two separate cases of alleged drunk driving and potential favoritism.
In one case, William Higgins, 20, of East Greenwich, was arrested by North Kingstown police after he slammed into the rear of a police cruiser that was parked at a stop light. The officer, Lt. Paul Barry, was transported to the hospital and later released.
Higgins later pleaded no contest to the charges. But the crash and arrest never made it onto the department's daily logs, records that show the public and media what is happening in the community.
Target 12 has learned the driver is the son of a retired police captain from a neighboring community.
North Kingstown Police Chief Thomas Mulligan declined to go on camera, but said in a phone interview that the arrest's absence from the daily log had nothing to do with the fathers stature in the law enforcement community.
There was another curious case of missing information in North Providence.
Francis J. Patriarca, 46, of Smithfield, was charged with drunk driving on Sept. 16. The police report alleges he struck two telephone poles with his vehicle, causing serious damage to city property, and then fled the scene. He was later arrested and failed a field sobriety test.
The report was supplied to WPRI 12 through a records request but contained redacted information. Following an appeal to the acting chief, the redaction was removed, revealing a stunning line.
The report read: "Sgt. Breit advised me that due to [Patriarca's] occupation and status as a Bail Commissioner in the community we should not issue any further summons."
In other words, the arresting officer said he was told by a superior to only charge the driver with drunk driving and let him off the hook for leaving the scene of an accident because of his stature in the community.
Deputy Chief Paul Martellini said he was disturbed by the line in the report. He said the department does a review of all arrest reports and they determined Patriarca needed to be charged further, including leaving the scene of an accident. Patriarca has pleaded not guilty.
Martellini also said he was not aware the report was sent to WPRI 12 with the incriminating line removed. He said it shouldn't have been and was told by the officer who redacted the information he was concerned it could be used in an internal investigation.
Marion said proper education might have prevented that from happening.
"If the people you dealt with had been well educated in the current law, they would have responded differently the first time," Marion said.
There have been several attempts at amending the public records law to include – among many proposed changes – stricter penalties for failing to abide by the law. Marion said though the bills haven't passed, in recent years it has made it to the floor for a vote.
"Quite frankly they don't let things get to votes unless they are somewhat serious about the issue," Marion said. "We have run into obstacles, particularly from police agencies who take exception to some of the changes we've sought."
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