WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Code of Ethics restricts government administrators from hiring or appointing nearly four dozen branches of their family trees, including grandfather-in-law, step-nephew, and uncle-in-law, but for blood-relatives, the line was drawn right before their cousin’s children.
One recent example — Warwick Mayor Joseph Solomon’s appointment of second cousin Tarah Provencal to the city’s three-member Board of Public Safety does not violate the code.
Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion said while the nepotism line had to be drawn somewhere, appointing a second cousin would seem to violate the spirit of the law.
“You should not be given a position of public trust because a member of your family gave you that. It isn’t theirs to give away,” Marion said. “It’s the public’s to give away.”
Solomon did not answer yes or no to a pair of emails asking if he is related to Provencal, instead forwarding a copy of the code, and an Ethics Commission advisory opinion on nepotism connected to another case.
In a follow-up telephone conversation, he said he appointed Provencal because she is very qualified and willing to volunteer her time for the board.
In an emailed statement, Solomon emphasized Provencal has a law degree and works for the Rhode Island Department of Health and Human Services.
“She is an invested and active member of our community and brings a measured and thoughtful approach to issues that will serve the board and our public safety departments well,” Solomon said.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Jason Gramitt said the state’s “nepotism laws are among the strongest in the United States, extending beyond immediate family members.”
“If we extended the nepotism law to apply to second cousins, one might reasonably then ask why it does not include third cousins or fourth cousins, and so on,” Gramitt said.
According to The National Conference of State Legislatures, Rhode Island’s nepotism law is stricter than laws in both Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Marion acknowledges the state’s nepotism law is “expansive in some ways” but might not be expansive enough in other ways.
“I think an argument could be made that a second cousin is a member of your family and should be subject to the nepotism prohibition,” Marion said. “The public trust which is what you get with elective or appointive office should be subject to familial connections.”
According to the Warwick city website, the Board of Public Safety offers oversight of the Police and Fire Departments and acts as the licensing authority for the City of Warwick.
Provencal has not immediately responded to requests for comment.