PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The head of the Providence Board of Canvassers on Wednesday refused to accept voluntary testimony from a police officer or to request additional documents before Friday’s deadline to decide if state Rep. John Carnevale actually lives in his district.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza responded quickly, saying in a statement he was “deeply disappointed” with the decision by Chairwoman Claudia Haugen “to ignore the advice of the city solicitor’s office and refuse to consider additional evidence about Mr. Carnevale’s voter eligibility.” He urged her to “reconsider her position” before an expected vote Thursday.
During a sometimes confusing hearing at City Hall, the two-member board deadlocked as Haugen made clear she thinks the canvassers are already doing enough while clerk Renay Brooks Omisore unsuccessfully pressed her to do more. The third seat on the three-member board has been vacant since May.
Haugen brushed off the urging of her own legal counsel, assistant city solicitor Ken Chiavarini, who encouraged her to collect as much information as possible before rendering a decision on Carnevale, particularly after the R.I. Board of Elections ordered the canvassers to step up their efforts and render a decision by Friday.
“You have very broad authority,” Chiavarini reminded Haugen at one point.
Chiavarini was especially emphatic in arguing that the board should agree to hear testimony volunteered by Lt. Richard Fernandes, who alleges Carnevale asked him to intentionally write parking tickets at his contested address shortly before the previous canvassers hearing. Haugen refused.
“I myself personally feel as though Mr. Carnevale has been compliant with the statutes,” Haugen said, noting he provided a variety of documents that use his claimed address, 150 Barbara St. in Providence.
Elorza said that despite Haugen’s decision, he has instructed Fernandes and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare “to attend tomorrow’s meeting prepared to answer questions.” He added: “The public deserves a thorough and comprehensive review of the evidence including information that has come to light since the challenge was filed.”
Haugen’s moves pleased Carnevale and his attorney, fellow state Rep. Robert Jacquard, as they fight multiple inquiries into Carnevale’s residency triggered by an undercover Target 12 investigation six weeks ago. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said this week he will remove Carnevale from the Democratic leadership team and urged him to reconsider running for re-election.
Carnevale said Wednesday he has no plans to reconsider his re-election bid. Asked about Mattiello’s remarks, Carnevale replied: “I will have no other comments until after a verdict has been rendered tomorrow.”
During the hearing, Jacquard said the canvassers only need to determine if Carnevale lived at his claimed address 30 days before he filed for office in late June, and dismissed questions regarding why Carnevale’s July 13 testimony about where he sleeps conflicts with city building records.
“He could pitch a tent in the backyard and be sleeping there,” said Jacquard, a Cranston Democrat who is also part of Mattiello’s House leadership team.
State Sen. John Pagliarini, who is representing the R.I. Republican Party in its challenge to Carnevale’s residency, shot back: “I would proffer to this board you may not pitch a tent and then run for political office.”
After the hearing, GOP Chairman Brandon Bell said: “I can’t believe it. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous. The statute gives broad authority to the Board of Canvassers, and she had her mind made up before she walked into that room.”
John Marion, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, wrote on Twitter after the hearing that he’d attended “a lot of public meetings” over the years but had “never seen a board member so stridently ignore advice of legal counsel as I saw at PVD Canvassers” on Wednesday.
The canvassers will meet again Thursday. Late Tuesday they issued subpoenas to unnamed individuals – on orders from the Board of Elections – to testify about Carnevale. But Chiavarini said a constable had been unable to serve those subpoenas yet as of midday Wednesday, calling into question whether they’ll show up to testify when the canvassers meet again Thursday afternoon.
The constable was seen arriving at 150 Barbara St. on Wednesday. He knocked on the door, but no one answered.
Pagliarini, with the backing of Omisore, also tried unsuccessfully to convince Haugen to subpoena tax and insurance documents from Carnevale that he said would show whether the Providence lawmaker is using his claimed address or a different property as his primary residence.
Jacquard agreed with Haugen’s decision to deny Pagliarini’s request. “This is just a fishing expedition to see if there’s anything in these documents or to delve into John’s personal business,” he said.
However, Haugen did agree to allow an employee in the city benefits office to come to Thursday’s hearing to discuss an assertion that Carnevale, a retired police officer, receives documentation related to his city health benefits at the Johnston home he owns outside his district, which has been at the center of the controversy.
During and after the hearing, Haugen maintained that she was only trying to follow the law on residency challenges by denying the requests for more information and testimony and had no interest in protecting Carnevale. Pressed by reporters about her reticence to dig deeper, she said: “I’m not a political person.”
Haugen also acknowledged she did not initially understand the powers possessed by the canvassers to investigate a residency challenge. “We initially were not aware that we could subpoena people,” she said. “We were not made aware. … We are now following the order from the Board of Elections.”
Asked whether she’s leaning toward allowing Carnevale to keep his current voter registration and therefore remain eligible for re-election, Haugen insisted she hasn’t made up her mind, but did say: “He provided about 28 documents with that address.”
Each member of the Board of Canvassers earns $30,000 a year, Haugen said. She was a Democratic appointee put on the board by former Mayor David Cicilline in 2009, she said. Omisore is a Republican appointee.
Under the city charter, the vacant third seat on the Board of Canvassers must be appointed by Elorza from a list of names provided by the Providence Democratic City Committee. Victor Capellan, chairman of the city Democrats, said the group gave the mayor a list of options earlier this week. Elorza is in Philadelphia attending the Democratic National Convention.Ted Nesi (email@example.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram Tim White( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook