PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Rhode Island Progressive Democrats said Tuesday they’ve filed a complaint against House Majority Leader John DeSimone with the R.I. Ethics Commission over his alleged failure to disclose his state and local tax debts.
DeSimone, D-Providence, acknowledged earlier this year that over the past decade properties he owns have repeatedly been put on the list for a city tax sale because he failed to pay his taxes on time. (The sales were averted when he paid up.) DeSimone described the decision to pay late as a matter of convenience as he managed his finances.
The progressive group – which has endorsed DeSimone’s primary opponent, Marcia Ranglin-Vassell – argued DeSimone should have listed his various tax debts on his mandatory annual financial disclosures to the Ethics Commission. Other lawmakers have belatedly disclosed debts in recent months after the scandal surrounding former Rep. Ray Gallison led to new scrutiny of their paperwork. Among them was Sen. Jamie Doyle, who acknowledged significant tax problems.
The Ethics Commission now has three days to decide whether to accept the complaint.
“It is a very real concern that for so many years DeSimone chose to hide this information from the public by failing to honestly answer questions on his financial disclosure statements,” Nate Carpenter, a spokesman for the Progressive Democrats, said in a statement. “This is a crucial matter for the Ethics Commission to investigate – especially considering the recent scandals we have experienced in Rhode Island along very similar lines.”
DeSimone has been the No. 2 Democrat in the House since joining forces with Nicholas Mattiello in the 2014 race for speaker. He responded to the ethics complaint Tuesday afternoon, telling WPRI.com: “They’re using the Ethics Commission as a political football.”
The current version of the Ethics Commission form requires Rhode Island officials to disclose “if you, your spouse, or dependent child were indebted in an amount in excess of $1,000 to any person, business entity, financial institution or other organization,” with limited exceptions.
But DeSimone said he and others had looked at the language on the disclosure form and concluded it doesn’t require him to mention the times when he owed past-due taxes. “I didn’t think that that fit under the definition,” he said.
“It’s not a municipal corporation or a municipal agency so I didn’t think that the debt to my real estate taxes – they’re all technically past due, because you pay taxes after they’re due,” he said.
Sam Bell, the progressives’ chairman, pushed back at DeSimone’s argument, saying the language is “extremely broad” and arguing that “the most important kind of debts to disclose are debts to entities over which the General Assembly has control, and the General Assembly holds huge sway over the state and the city.”
Bell also called his comments about late taxes “ridiculous,” saying: “DeSimone may not be aware, but most Rhode Islanders actually do not pay our taxes after they are due. It is, in fact, possible to pay taxes before they are due.”
In addition, the progressives said the state put a tax lien on DeSimone’s home in 2012, representing another debt they argue should have been disclosed but was not. The group noted DeSimone has sponsored legislation to put a 10-year statute of limitations on the collection of state taxes.
DeSimone said he paid the lien the day after he received it in the mail.
“In 2012, like everyone, I was juggling certain things – I’m a small businessperson, I have kids in college. … I work hard, I juggle my obligations just like everyone else,” he said. He said he is currently up to date on all his tax payments and owes no back taxes.
The progressives also questioned whether DeSimone should have disclosed his income from United Providence, a joint effort by the Providence schools and the city teachers’ union, which he has represented since 2003.
DeSimone said he has no plans to amend any of his financial disclosure forms, and dismissed the entire complaint as part of a campaign to unseat him in the Sept. 13 primary. “This is a political maneuver by the progressives to detract from the issues of our neighborhood,” he said.
DeSimone first won his House seat in 1992 and has been re-elected every two years since then.Ted Nesi (email@example.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram