PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The new president of the Providence City Council has asked the city’s top lawyer to review Providence Municipal Court Chief Judge Frank Caprio’s reality show “Caught in Providence,” amid questions about his future and connections with the program.
Council President Rachel Miller sent a letter to City Solicitor Jeff Dana on Monday afternoon asking for “a review of state, local and judicial ethics regulations as they apply to Chief Judge Caprio’s relationship” with the TV show.
The letter also requests copies of any authorization from the city for the show to be filmed in the court, as well as any agreements that exist between the production company and the city.
City officials in the past week have not been able to locate any such agreements. The newly inaugurated mayor, Brett Smiley, has yet to comment publicly on the arrangement.
The cable television show — which is produced by members of Judge Caprio’s politically prominent family, and has long been recorded in Caprio’s courtroom — at one time aired on public access television. But the show got a national syndication deal, propelling Caprio into fame, before landing in its current home on cable on the Law & Crime Network.
The show is distributed by a subsidiary of Lionsgate called Debmar-Mercury.
Clips of the judge dismissing parking tickets for down-on-their-luck citizens have gone viral on social media in recent years, raising the elder Caprio’s profile. The TV show’s YouTube channel has 2.3 million followers.
“Caught in Providence” earned a daytime Emmy nomination last year. It’s unclear how much money the show and its various social media accounts bring in.
The most recent video on the show’s YouTube channel, featuring a woman and her children who were living in a car that had a boot placed on it by the city, has 49,000 views. (In it, Caprio offers to pay the woman’s fines using the “Filomena Fund,” an organization he and his family members control.)
But despite operating inside the Providence Municipal Court, the program has no known agreement with the city, multiple city officials told Target 12, and does not pay the city for the use of the court or its employees.
Questions about “Caught in Providence” have been raised over the past week after it came to light that Caprio, 86, may not have the votes to be reappointed to the bench by the Providence City Council, which elects the city’s judges every four years.
Caprio said on WPRO radio on Monday morning that he would prefer to remain on as chief judge, but would be willing to take a lesser position if it meant he gets to stay on the bench.
Miller said she wants to see the results of the review she has requested before making a decision on whether she would vote to reappoint the judge. She and Caprio discussed his future on the bench before she officially took office as president, including the possibility of a new “chief emeritus” position, which does not currently exist.
The election of the court’s three judges has been delayed because of the questions surrounding the show.
“There’s a lot that we just don’t know about the show, and that’s going to influence decisions about the court,” Miller said. The vote could take place at the council’s next meeting on Jan. 19, but may be delayed further depending on if the review is complete.
The show did receive a green light from the Rhode Island Ethics Commission in 2015, when the judge asked if it was appropriate for his brother, Joseph Caprio, to be compensated for his work videotaping the program. At the time, the show was only airing on public access television.
The commission said Joseph Caprio could be compensated as long as Judge Caprio is not, and as long as any member of the public has the same access to videotape the proceedings.
David Caprio — the judge’s son, a former state representative — is also a co-owner of the show’s production company City Life Productions. He declined to answer questions from Target 12, but said in the radio interview that he makes about $100,000 per year in dividends from his ownership stake in the company. (Judge Caprio is also the father of Frank T. Caprio, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010.)
John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said the 2015 opinion was based on a set of facts that have changed, including David Caprio’s involvement and the national syndication.
“We know at least one of the significant facts that he shared with the Ethics Commission is no longer the same, so it kind of begs the question are any other the other facts that he represented different,” Marion said.
“Does the public have the same access as the company that’s producing the show?” Marion continued. “I have questions about what happens when a person declines to be filmed by the show — how are they treated by the court?”
Court administrator Patrick Butler confirmed the judge is aware of which citizens have asked not to be on the show.
“When the alleged traffic violators approach Judge Caprio he or she will say if they wish to be on camera or not,” Butler said through a spokesperson.
Marion also pointed out that the Ethics Commission does not take into account the R.I. Judicial Code or the Providence Ethics Code. The latter set of rules says city employees and officials cannot “use property owned by the city … for his or her personal benefit, convenience or profit.”
Judge Caprio did not respond to a request for an interview Monday, but on WPRO said he is not compensated for his family members’ show.
“I have not made one dime on the syndication, on anything to do with ‘Caught in Providence,'” Caprio said. “Not one.”
Caprio makes $56,823 for the part-time job on the bench, rotating duty in the municipal court with two other judges.
He said he was upset by the news that he might not be reappointed by the City Council.
“I’m hurt,” Caprio said. “I think of my years on the bench, I think of how I’ve advanced the reputation of the city of Providence and the state of Rhode Island. I think of the people I’ve helped.”