PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Dan McKee’s office violated Rhode Island’s public records law in its effort to withhold background reports on some of the state’s top politicians, but still had the right to keep the information secret under a different rationale, the Rhode Island attorney general’s office has ruled.

Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office issued the decision last week, nearly a year and a half after Target 12 first requested copies of dossiers that were prepared for McKee regarding three finalists for lieutenant governor: Elizabeth Beretta-Perik, James Diossa and Sabina Matos.

“In this case, we have determined that, although the Office of the Governor did not cite a valid basis for withholding the record in its initial response to the request, it did not violate the APRA by withholding the record,” wrote special assistant attorney general Katherine Connolly Sadeck.

Target 12 initially filed the public record’s request in July 2021 after learning McKee had asked Roshan Patel, executive director of the Democratic Lieutenant Governor Association, to put together the background reports. McKee picked Matos for the position two days after receiving the assessments.

The reports contained “information about the candidates’ political relationships, career history, court cases, property records, past campaigns, marital status, issues and notable media coverage history, potential controversies and vulnerabilities, past budget and spending behaviors and candidates’ personal stance on current events and hot button issues,” according to legal documents.

McKee’s office initially denied Target 12’s request for the dossiers, arguing APRA wasn’t applicable in this case because the information was a “political assessment of the candidates and thereby a private political document not made in connection with the transaction of official business by the Governor’s Office.”

Target 12 responded by filing a legal complaint with Neronha’s office, arguing in part that the reports were shared with top aides in the governor’s office — including then-chief of staff Tony Silva, current chief of staff Antonio Alfonso and communications director Andrea Palagi — who were conducting public business in selecting a new state lieutenant governor.

In response to the complaint, the governor’s office acknowledged for the first time that the information had been shared among public officials using at least one government email, after previously claiming the officials only used their personal email addresses to discuss the reports. The governor’s office then shifted its position to argue the files still should be kept secret because of – among other things – privacy concerns.

Neronha’s office ultimately agreed with Target 12 that the reports are public documents and subject to the state’s public records law.

“These documents were shared with the governor and his top aides for the express purpose of assisting them in the performance of a core official duty: appointing the lieutenant governor,” Sadeck wrote. “As such, the Governor’s Office violated the APRA by withholding the assessments based on its assertion that the assessments are not subject to the APRA.”

But the attorney general’s office nonetheless sided with the governor’s office in determining the the underlying information could be kept out of the public eye.

“Under the APRA, our task is not to determine whether a document should be released as a matter of good public policy or good judgment,” Sadeck wrote. “Rather, we are constrained to determine whether a document is subject to the APRA and, if so, whether the respondent has permissibly asserted one or more exemptions under the APRA.”

The office ruled the dossiers were exempt for at least two reasons, but Sadeck focused chiefly on the idea that releasing the information would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” for the three candidates and their families.  

“Thus, on balance, we find the privacy interest implicated by these records outweigh the public interest in their disclosure,” Sadeck wrote.

On Tuesday, McKee spokesperson Matt Sheaff said the governor’s office was “satisfied by the attorney general’s decision and are gratified that his office ultimately agreed with our position re: these documents.”

McKee’s top attorney Claire Richards, who argued the APRA case on behalf of the governor, has said repeatedly the reports were not paid for with public funds. But the governor’s office did not respond this week to questions about how Patel was compensated for his work. McKee’s campaign finance reports didn’t show any expenditures to him or the DLGA during that time period.

Neronha — whose office adjudicates all APRA complaints — recused himself from this particular case because of his decades-long personal friendship with Beretta-Perik, who is one of Rhode Island’s representatives on the Democratic National Committee.

The decision took roughly 18 months to arrive and was released just weeks after the conclusion of last month’s general election, which saw Matos elected lieutenant governor and Diossa elected general treasurer.

Asked in October whether a decision on releasing the material would be made before voters cast their ballots in the pair’s races, special assistant attorney general Adam Roach responded: “The mater is currently pending with this Office, although we endeavor to issue a finding as promptly as possible.”

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