PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The president of the NAACP Providence branch, Gerard Catala, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to two criminal counts of violating campaign finance laws.
Catala, 44, appeared in 6th District Court in Providence where he was arraigned on the two charges. Catala told the judge he would hire a lawyer “if warranted,” and asked permission to travel out of state for “a lot of speaking engagements.”
He was released on his own recognizance and ordered to return on Feb. 17.
Catala — who was wearing various insignia including an Omega Psi Phi fraternity badge, a city of Providence pin and a mask bearing the words “Black men stop killing Black men” — would not speak to reporters outside court, walking silently to his car and ignoring requests for comment.
He has not yet said anything publicly about the criminal charges against him, which were filed last week by the R.I. State Police financial crimes unit and Attorney General Peter Neronha.
The three-time City Council candidate has had campaign finance issues for all of his runs for public office, but the charges are connected to his most recent run for Providence City Council in 2022. (He lost the race to Juan Pichardo.)
The criminal charges have already had repercussions for the Providence NAACP, as Neronha has opted not to give a $40,000 Department of Justice grant related to preventing hate crimes to the organization, according to a spokesperson. (Other local groups will receive the grant.)
Requests for comment from the national NAACP about Catala have gone unanswered. Catala has continued to appear at events representing the organization, including at a vigil for Tyre Nichols on Monday night.
Catala’s case started with an audit by the R.I. Board of Elections, which probed his campaign account after he failed to file required reports for his 2018 run for City Council. The elections board voted to send the violation to Neronha’s office for prosecution last year, finding that Catal spent more than $7,000 from his campaign account that was not accounted for on campaign finance reports.
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Neronha’s said some charges pertaining to the 2018 matter were outside the statute of limitations. But even while under criminal investigation, Catala failed to file the required reports during his 2022 run for City Council.
“When the Board of Elections repeatedly asks candidates to follow the rules and the candidates just ignore the Board of Elections requests and that leads to a referral to our office, then we are likely, if we find a charge, to bring it,” Neronha said, contrasting the case with candidates who may forget to initially file their reports.
Richard Thornton, the campaign finance director at the Board of Elections, said Catala has not filed his past-due reports or had any communication with the office since his arrest.
Catala is racking up $6 per day in fines for his unfiled 2022 reports, and owes more than $18,000 in fines for his 2018 reports, Thornton said.
Neronha said failing to file the reports leaves the public in a difficult position.
“They have no idea how that person’s campaign is being financed, so they don’t know what is motivating that candidate,” Neronha said. “They don’t know how to judge conflicts of interest.”
Neronha said he opted not to award the DOJ grant to the NAACP after twice asking the organization about how they were going to document how they were spending the money, and did not receive anything back.
“We have brought charges against the head of an organization for failing to account, allegedly, how he spent money,” Neronha said. “You can see why we might have some concerns.”
Steph Machado (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.