PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s highest-ranking lawmakers have refused repeated requests to release information about their political spending accounts, despite their calls for more accountability in the wake of a federal investigation that led to the arrest of former House Speaker Gordon Fox.
In a March 27 request, Target 12 asked all 112 current members of the General Assembly – one House seat is currently vacant – to provide a December 2014 bank statement for their campaign finance accounts. But House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed said they “strongly believe that bank statements are not public record.”
On the same day of the request, Mattiello emailed a statement – which was also signed by Paiva Weed – to every member of the House, with a subject line that read “Official response to Channel 12.”
“We support legislation currently before the House and Senate related to campaign finances,” the two leading lawmakers wrote in the email to their colleagues. “One bill, H 5789, makes it very clear that the bank account statement expense report ‘shall not be deemed a public record pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 2 of Title 38 (the Open Records Law).’”
Current Rhode Island law requires all elected officials, candidates, political parties and political action committees to submit quarterly campaign reports to the R.I. Board of Elections, but those groups are not required to provide bank statements to accompany their filings.
In other words, when state lawmakers disclose the amount of money they have in their campaign accounts, the Board of Elections has no way of ensuring that those statements are accurate.
That loophole allowed Fox, a Democrat, to take $108,000 from his campaign account between 2008 and 2014, illegally using the money on personal expenses – including purchases at Tiffany’s, Urban Outfitters and the Warwick Animal Hospital – then filing misleading reports with the Board of Elections, according to the the U.S. attorney’s office.
At the close of 2013, prosecutors say Fox reported $212,060 in his campaign account but actually had only $52,403 on hand.
On March 3, Fox pleaded guilty to bribery, wire fraud and filing a false tax return, all following an 18-month investigation by a federal grand jury. He reached a plea deal in exchange for a three-year prison sentence. If U.S. District Judge Mary Lisi accepts Fox’s plea agreement, he will be sentenced June 11.
Following Fox’s guilty plea, both House and Senate leadership pledged to reform the state’s campaign finance reporting laws. Mattiello said at the time he’d be open to having his disclosures audited and said, “I’m sure that most of our members would feel that way.”
“I don’t audit all of my members’ reports, and evidently nobody else does,” Mattiello said at the time.
John Marion, executive director of good government group Common Cause Rhode Island, said he doesn’t see why lawmakers would refuse to release information that should mirror the campaign account information they are required to disclose. He noted that candidates for office often agree to release their tax returns even though those aren’t a public record either.
“This is I think an analogous situation,” Marion said. “You’re not asking for a public record, but because of recent scandals dealing with campaign finance, you’re asking for the backup documentation proving that what they say, the reporting is actually true.”
Marion said the message sent from Mattiello and Paiva Weed will likely deter many lawmakers from responding to Target 12’s request for their own campaign bank statements.
“The Senate president and speaker of the House have a lot of power to punish members who don’t go along with what they want: legislative grants, committee assignments, literally parking spaces,” Marion said. “So anything that comes down from the third floor of the State House really has a big impact on the rank and file.”
Fox isn’t the only politician accused of misusing his campaign account. In February, state Rep. Joseph Almeida was arrested and charged with misappropriating more than $6,000 in campaign contributions for his personal use. In the wake of his arrest, the Providence Democrat resigned his position as deputy majority whip of the House, but he remains an active member of the legislature.
On Tuesday, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees both approved legislation that would require candidates and officeholders to provide end-of-year bank statement to the Board of Elections. The two committees also approved bills that would prohibit commingling campaign and personal bank accounts and prevent anyone who raises or spends at least $10,000 from serving as the treasurer of his or her campaign, as Fox did.
Those bills are expected to sail to passage in both chambers, but bank statements would not be considered a public record.
As of Dec. 31, Mattiello reported $139,564 cash on hand in his campaign war chest. Paiva Weed had $42,477.Dan McGowan ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan Tim White( email@example.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @TimWhiteRISteve Nielsen contributed to this report.