PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Rhode Island GOP has filed a complaint against House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi with the R.I. Ethics Commission, accusing him of supporting legislation six years ago that would have benefited one of his law firm’s clients.
The complaint, filed Wednesday by R.I. Republican Party Chairman Joe Powers, alleges that Shekarchi violated the state’s ethics code in 2017 when he supported and voted for legislation that would have allowed weddings to be hosted at local farms for a fee. Shekarchi was House Majority Leader at the time, the legislation passed the House but failed in the Senate.
Powers said the legislation would have financially benefited Gerald Zarrella, who was one of Shekarchi’s legal clients and who had been prohibited from hosting weddings at his farm by the town of Exeter.
“Shekarchi had a reason to believe or expect that Zarrella, his business associate, would derive a direct financially [sic] benefit if the legislation became law,” Powers wrote in the complaint to the Ethics Commission.
The formal complaint follows a drumbeat of criticism by some in the state GOP over a slate of housing bills proposed by Shekarchi – who is a land use attorney – in the current legislative session. While the speaker has said the measures are aimed at addressing Rhode Island’s housing shortage, Republican critics have suggested it will also benefit his developer clients.
“The R.I. Senate should not pass, and the governor should not sign any Shekarchi legislation which overrides local control over zoning or land use until the Ethics Commission completes an investigation into Shekarchi and Shekarchi discloses to the public a complete list of his clients,” Powers said in a statement.
In a statement, Shekarchi said the complaint is “totally without merit,” calling it a “misguided attempt to distract” lawmakers in the final weeks of the legislative session.
“It is yet another baseless political attack from the Republicans, who have been opposed to my efforts to provide much-needed housing relief,” Shekarchi said. “The Republican Party continues to be out of step with Rhode Islanders who are suffering during a severe housing crisis.”
At the time of the 2017 legislation, Zarrella had a case before the R.I. Supreme Court contesting Exeter’s ban on weddings at his farm. While Shekarchi was not representing Zarrella in the high-court case, he was retained by Zarrella’s company in other zoning matters, according to the GOP complaint.
If passed, the legislation would have made the case before the Supreme Court moot, benefiting Zarrella financially both by allowing weddings on his farm, and by sparing him further legal bills.
The bill died in the Senate, and the Supreme Court later ruled against Zarrella.