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Bill would stop RI pols from repaying themselves after stealing campaign funds

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A Rhode Island senator has introduced legislation designed to close a loophole in state law that allows politicians convicted of stealing from their campaign accounts to pay restitution to their own political fund.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Cynthia Coyne and supported by Attorney General Peter Neronha, would require any restitution paid by a convicted politician to be directed to the state’s Crime Victim Compensation Program rather their campaign account.

“It makes more sense to take that out of the control of the convicted individual and to put it to good use,” Coyne, a Barrington Democrat, told Target 12.

Coyne said she introduced similar legislation last year after Target 12 reported that disgraced former House Speaker Gordon Fox had begun paying $109,000 in restitution to the same campaign account he admitted to stealing from. The bill did not get a vote in 2018, so Coyne introduced it again last week.

“When I was listening to your newscast, I’m saying, ‘That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, that he would pay back his own campaign fund that he has control over,’” Coyne said.

Coyne’s legislation is co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. James Seveney, Lou DiPalma, Dawn Euer and Gayle Goldin. A spokesperson for Neronha said the new attorney general, also a Democrat, supports the proposal. It has not been introduced in the House.

Fox served more than two years in federal prison for accepting $52,500 in bribes from the owners of a Thayer Street restaurant in exchange for helping them obtain a liquor license in 2008 and using campaign funds to cover personal expenses. He was also ordered him to repay the campaign account, but a judge didn’t set any rules on how the money must be used.

Politicians are prohibited from using their campaign accounts for personal expenses, but Fox admitted in his 2015 plea deal that he used the fund to cover mortgage and car payments as well as his credit card bill.

In a filing with the R.I. Board of Elections Wednesday, Fox disclosed that he contributed $3,500 to the campaign fund in December. State law allows campaign funds to be donated to candidates for office or political committees; transferred to new political action committees or for ballot question advocacy; donated to tax-exempt charitable organizations or to the state; or returned to donors.

“The federal court ordered him to pay the money back to his campaign account. In compliance with the federal court’s order he has makes ongoing payments into his campaign account,” Albin Moser, one of Fox’s attorneys, wrote in an email to Target 12. “After the funds are paid into the campaign account he must thereafter devote the money to the intended purposes of the account, which include political purposes and charitable purposes.”

Moser noted that Fox donated more than $60,000 that was remaining in his campaign fund to three nonprofit organizations: $25,000 to Stages of Freedom to create an endowment for swimming lessons for children, $20,000 to Open Doors R.I., which supports formerly incarcerated people, and $17,200 to the YMCA.

Moser said Fox plans to donate any money he repays his campaign fund, as well.

Coyne acknowledged that even if her proposal had been law when Fox was convicted, it likely wouldn’t have applied to him because he faced federal charges. She said she’s hopeful forcing politicians to give up control over the funds will be more of a deterrence.

“Who’s to say they wouldn’t misspend their campaign fund again if they have control over it?” she said.

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Dan McGowan (dmcgowan@wpri.com) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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