PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Lt. Gov. Dan McKee acknowledged Thursday he failed to report an overseas trip to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission until Target 12 inquired about his travels, but insisted his visits to Asia will pay dividends for the state.
Target 12 revealed Wednesday that McKee did not list the 2017 trip on his annual ethics form despite a rule requiring disclosure of all official travel over $250 funded by outside entities. He amended the form to acknowledge the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Boston, an arm of the Taiwan government, paid $3,500 for his travel, hotel and food on that trip.
McKee, a second-term Democrat, is departing Friday for another trip to Asia, a 10-day visit to Taiwan and mainland China also funded in part by Taipei. Four other Blackstone Valley Democrats — Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien, Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, state Sen. Sandra Cano and state Rep. Carlos Tobon — are joining him.
Brandon Bell, former chair of the R.I. Republican Party and now its acting general counsel, filed a formal ethics complaint against McKee on Thursday over the omission, arguing the commission should fine him for it.
"It is incomprehensible that McKee simply forgot about this 10-day trip to Taiwan when he filed his report last year," Bell said in a statement.
McKee insisted otherwise. "I misread the question and I didn't include it," the lieutenant governor said during a radio interview with WPRO's Tara Granahan.
Explaining what happened, McKee said that after Target 12 inquired about the upcoming trip, he began to wonder whether "this trip I'm going on right now, is that a reportable trip? It was — the answer was yes when we checked with the ethics office — and I said, well, 2017 would be one, too, so I'll go and I'll amend it."
"It's as simple as that," McKee said. "I made a mistake. Ignorance is no excuse for breaking the rules, but that's what happened."
As of Wednesday, the 2017 Asia trip was the only privately funded out-of-state official travel McKee reported during his first term. He told Granahan he "had not done a lot of traveling as lieutenant governor" other than meetings of the National Lieutenant Governors Association.
"We're reviewing all those trips to make sure that if I need to amend again, I will," he said.
Bell ridiculed McKee's excuse, saying he should have asked the Ethics Commission staff for guidance if he was confused about how to fill out the report.
"Perhaps McKee did not disclose his 10-day junket to the Far East last year because he did not want it to be an issue in his re-election," Bell said. "If our lieutenant governor can spend 10 days on the other side of the planet without the public noticing, Rhode Islanders would have questioned whether Rhode Island needed to keep McKee as lieutenant governor."
He added: "If the Ethics Commission does not fine McKee, it would send a message to other public officials that they should not bother disclosing potentially controversial trips, and just claim ignorance and amend their report when they are caught."
McKee spokesperson Andrea Palagi said the lieutenant governor had no comment on Bell's complaint.
Jason Gramitt, the Ethics Commission's executive director, said there is no automatic penalty for failing to complete the disclosure form accurately. "What we want, and I think what everyone wants more than anything, is compliance," he said. "We want them to file the form and we want it to be accurate."
Gramitt declined to comment specifically on McKee. "I don't want to say anything that would prejudge the Ethics Commission's review of the matter, either with or without a complaint," he said.
McKee said he was asked to go on the 2017 trip by Blackstone Valley business leaders including Louis Yip, a prominent developer with longstanding ties to Democratic powerbrokers, to build on the annual Rhode Island Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival. Taiwan has agreed to donate six more boats for this year's races.
McKee said he and the others leaving Friday are "going to use this trip to Taiwan to accept the boats." He defended the visit as more than a vacation, saying, "It's not a joke. … The trip is grueling." The 11 travelers will be looking for economic development opportunities that could benefit Blackstone Valley as well as learning about Alzheimer's research, he said.
McKee's office disclosed Thursday that the Taiwan leg of this year's trip is again being funded by the Boston Taipei Office, while the mainland China portion is being paid for by Equity China, a financial firm based in Beijing.
Palagi, the McKee spokesperson, said Equity China has been in business since 2004 and does not have a website. "The company does business in China and the U.S. in the areas of real estate, energy, pharmacy, manufacturing and other industries," she said in an email. "Equity China has invested in the U.S. since 2013 and has investment projects in Massachusetts, Florida and North Carolina."
McKee's office also released a letter dated March 7 from Jiny Shao, listed as Equity China's executive director, inviting the lieutenant governor to Shanghai at the company's expense.
"We are exploring more business opportunities in Rhode Island," Shao wrote, saying the visit will "get more knowledge and understanding from both parties."
"All your expenses including local transportation, accomodations, medical insurances and all other related expenses during your stay in Shanghai will be paid by my company," he wrote.
McKee said no taxpayer money is involved in the trip, which his wife is joining him on. "We'll check and make sure that that's all legit from our side," McKee told Granahan. "If I need to pay for my wife's airfare I will, and if I don't then I won't. We're going to make sure that the ethics issues are all covered."
McKee emphasized that he had never tried to hide the 2017 trip, noting that he posted about it on Facebook. He also complained that while the disclosure error is making headlines now, many of the regular news releases sent by the lieutenant governor's office do not get much attention from reporters.
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