PROVIDENCE, R.I (WPRI) – The Providence Ethics Commission met for the first time in more than a year Thursday, voting to dismiss two complaints against high-profile city leaders which they had previously voted to investigate but then never actually considered.
The commission, which held its last meeting in November 2021, voted to dismiss separate complaints against Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré and City Councilman Michael Correia. Both were filed in 2019.
Andrew Kanter, the city commission’s chairman, said the complaints were dismissed not because the commission determined they didn’t have merit, but because the panel has been unable to consider them or hold hearings on them.
“It’s clear the commission is not working,” Kanter said.
Kanter said there’s an inherent issue with the volunteer board’s ability to adjudicate potential violations of the city’s Code of Ethics. The commission doesn’t have a budget or staff, and relies on the city law department to conduct its investigations.
But the law department is also responsible for representing the same city officials being accused of wrongdoing — creating an inherent conflict.
“You just can’t square the circle,” Kanter said. “There seems to be a conflict of interest and they can’t investigate, but the code says they have to investigate.”
A workaround to hire outside counsel to investigate ethics complaints hasn’t been successful, either, Kanter said.
“We’ve never gotten a determination as to whether the allegations were true,” Kanter said. “We’ve never been able to really adjudicate anything that has come to us.”
In addition, Kanter said the commission has had trouble getting the City Clerk’s office to clerk the meetings, and three of the seven seats on the board are currently vacant.
He said he plans to discuss the problems with Mayor-elect Brett Smiley’s incoming administration in order to try and improve the ordinance governing the Ethics Commission. Kanter also apologized for not recognizing sooner that the commission was not able to function.
“I am looking forward to working with the new administration, with the new City Council, and figuring out how to make it work,” Kanter said. “We should be able to quickly, relatively speaking, address concerns about ethics in the city.”
Artin Coloian, the attorney for Councilman Correia, put it more bluntly. He argued the commission should either be “disbanded or legitimized.”
“I don’t know what planet these people are on,” Coloian said. “This is a putrid board.”
Dismissed Correia complaint came from former DPW official
The complaint made against Correia, a Democrat who represents Ward 6, was filed in 2019 by then-deputy director of public works Michael McKenna, who accused the councilman of using “DPW assets, resources and personnel for political and personal gain.”
The matter is also the subject of an ongoing lawsuit between McKenna and Correia.
McKenna cited text messages in which Correia asked another DPW official to send crews to pickup up discarded junk at various addresses. When the official responded asking what the pickups were worth to Correia, he responded: “McKenna’s demotion.”
McKenna also claimed Correia used his position as a councilor to “undermine the chain of command” at the DPW and circumvent the “proper channels” for DPW-related requests.
Correia — who was a member of council leadership at the time — acknowledged he was seeking to eliminate McKenna’s job in the budget process, but said it was because he felt the position was not needed. Mayor Jorge Elorza later threatened to veto the budget over the issue, and McKenna’s position was not cut. (McKenna was later fired in 2020.)
While the Ethics Commission voted to formally investigate McKenna’s complaint shortly after it was filed, Kanter said three years later the commission has not received a report from the law department with the results of the investigation.
Coloian expressed disbelief at the way the board dealt with the complaint. He said Correia was never even formally served with the complaint, and only learned about the details from Target 12.
“We have no official knowledge of any complaint except for what we read in the press,” Coloian said during the meeting.
Coloian argued that the complaint should be dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be re-filed with the same allegations.
“This has been a horrible occurrence for my client and his family,” Coloian said.
Commission member David Stuebe expressed shock that Correia had not been served.
“I’m really, really angry about where we are with this whole situation,” Stuebe said, while also apologizing to Coloian. “I’m incredibly frustrated with the process here.”
Dee Dee Whitman, a recently appointed member of the board, made the motion to dismiss the complaint with prejudice. It was approved by three members, with Stuebe abstaining.
Paré complaint revolved around lack of fire chief
The complaint against Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré, filed in 2019 by Councilman James Taylor, claimed the commissioner violated the Code of Ethics by not hiring a fire chief in an alleged effort to bolster his own salary.
Paré serves as acting fire chief in addition to public safety commissioner, and is paid using both line items in the city budget. That bumps his pay $40,000 higher than the $125,000 budgeted for the commissioner’s job. (Paré also has a State Police pension of $106,000 annually.)
Paré, who oversees both the fire and police departments, wrote in a letter to former City Council President Sabina Matos back in 2019 that despite having a candidate for fire chief, he would not hire one until the council restored its previous cut to the commissioner’s salary.
Taylor, a retired battalion chief with the Providence Fire Department, claimed at the time that Paré was “using his office to enrich himself personally.”
But Paré claimed Taylor was acting on a personal vendetta, arguing the councilman was upset that he was not selected by Paré to be fire chief before his retirement.
Providence has not had a permanent fire chief since 2015.
The Ethics Commission voted to open an investigation into the complaint in March 2020, deciding that the allegations, if true, would constitute a violation of the Code of Ethics. But Kanter said at the time he learned the city had already hired outside counsel who had not only started an investigation, but completed it before the commission even voted.
The outside lawyer, Carl Levin, argued the section of the city’s Code of Ethics pertaining to Paré’s case was “unconstitutionally vague,” and said he could not determine if a public official violated a standard that is not clear. He recommended the complaint be dismissed.
The commissioners rejected Levin’s analysis at the time and said they would still seek an investigation into the claims alleged in Taylor’s complaint. But more than two and a half years later, the commission voted Thursday to dismiss the complaint against Paré.
The complaint was stale, Kanter said.
“We have to admit we failed,” Stuebe acknowledged after the meeting.