Ethics Commission dismisses GOP complaint against Raimondo over casino spat

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Ethics Commission on Tuesday voted to dismiss a Rhode Island Republican Party ethics complaint lodged last year against Gov. Gina Raimondo over a controversial state contract.

“There does not exist probably cause to believe that the [governor] committed a knowing and willful violation of the Code of Ethics,” the commissioners wrote in a decision made public after they met for more than an hour in executive session. They voted to dismiss the complaint with prejudice.

In response to the decision, Raimondo’s attorney Jonathan Berkon of Perkins Coie LLP lauded the commission for its decision.

“We are pleased that the Ethics Commission voted to dismiss this baseless complaint, following a thorough review,” Berkon said in a statement. “We want to thank the Ethics Commission and its staff for their time and effort. The governor remains focused on fighting every day to get Rhode Islanders safely back to work.”

The commissioners voted 7-1 in favor of the decision, which comes roughly 10 months after the GOP took issue with the governor’s political ties to the former chairman of IGT, at the same time she was championing a proposed $1 billion deal with the gaming technology giant.

Donald Sweitzer, an IGT lobbyist and former chairman of the company, was serving as treasurer at the time for the national Democratic Governors Association, which was then chaired by Raimondo.

In a statement, the GOP lambasted the commission and its decision, accusing it of ignoring Sweitzer’s position at the DGA because “someone else, acting on Sweitzer’s behalf, handled the DGA’s bank accounts.”

“In 2019, the DGA raised over $43.5 million,” the party said. “Does the Ethics Commission really believe that Sweitzer did not play an important leadership role in affecting and achieving the DGA’s financial goals in 2019? The Ethics Commission’s decision just makes it easier for politicians and their lobbyist friends to circumvent the Ethics Code.”

The GOP also said it wasn’t surprised by the decision, pointing out that most of the commissioners are gubernatorial appointees. The governor directly appoints four of the nine commissioners, and then chooses the other five based on a list of nominees submitted by the majority and minority leaders in the General Assembly.

The proposed 20-year, $1 billion contract extension with IGT, formerly known as GTECH, was negotiated between the governor and company, although it would have needed legislative approval.

In addition to the ethics complaint, the proposed contract spurred a months-long battle between IGT and the state’s casino operator Twin River Worldwide Holdings Inc. The company mounted an expensive public campaign against IGT and the governor, claiming it was unfair that there wasn’t a competitive bidding process for such a lucrative state contract.

In January, Twin River ended the opposition campaign after the companies reached a truce and joined forces — offering the state a new deal that included both companies, but still no competitive bidding process.

The revised plan happened without much public involvement from the governor, who said at the time she would have to review the proposal before offering her full support. The General Assembly had been reviewing the deal before the public health crisis caused by COVID-19 stopped the legislature from meeting.

Fighting the ethics complaint hasn’t come cheap for Raimondo. In February, Target 12 reported the governor’s campaign had spent at least $79,000 so far having the Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie help her mount a defense.

The campaign also tapped Providence-based law firm Duffy & Sweeney LTD to help with a legal response filed with the commission in September. The campaign paid the firm about $4,500 in December, although it wasn’t made clear whether that spending was directly related to the ethics complaint.

The commission will release its order at a later date, which will reveal more about what went into the decision to dismiss. Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John Marion, who has been watching the process unfold closely, said he looks forward to learning more once the full report comes out.

“We won’t know the Commission’s reasoning for coming to this conclusion until they release their decision and order at a later date,” Marion said. “We hope the Commission’s written explanation provides a sufficiently clear explanation for why they dismissed this serious allegation.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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