PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Embattled state Rep. Carlos Tobon has been spotted in Denver in recent days attending a prestigious national gathering of state lawmakers, even though he effectively abandoned his job back in May following a Target 12 investigation into his finances.
Target 12’s report revealed that Tobon, D-Pawtucket, had a largely undisclosed history of legal disputes, unpaid debts and questionable financial transactions. The revelation led House Speaker Joe Shekarchi to kick Tobon off the powerful Finance Committee and caused the R.I. Ethics Commission to open an investigation into him.
Tobon never showed up to the House of Representatives again after Target 12’s report aired May 5, and he didn’t file for re-election. But he also never resigned his seat, allowing him to continue collecting his $40,042 taxpayer-funded salary and health insurance for the rest of this year.
Now Tobon is one of six Rhode Island legislators currently attending a three-day Legislative Summit hosted by the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, according to Larry Berman, a spokesperson for Shekarchi. Also on hand are state Reps. Marvin Abney, Grace Diaz, Brian Patrick Kennedy and Bill O’Brien, and state Sen. Dawn Euer.
Tobon can be seen in the background of two photos posted on Twitter by Euer, showing a group of lawmakers from NCSL’s agriculture task force touring the Denver campus of Colorado State University.
Berman said the General Assembly pays NCSL an annual membership fee of $135,667 in order for Rhode Island lawmakers to participate in its events and use its staff experts. But he said no money from the legislative budget was used to pay for Tobon’s travel expenses to Denver.
(Berman said the General Assembly paid the $650 registration fee for only two of the Rhode Island attendees, Diaz and O’Brien, while they were responsible for travel and lodging.)
Mick Bullock, a spokesperson for NCSL, refused to say whether the organization had paid any of Tobon’s travel expenses, as is often the case when outside groups host lawmakers for out-of-state conferences.
“NCSL does not release attendee information,” he told Target 12.
Tobon didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday. But since he was first elected in 2014, he has developed a reputation at the State House for taking more advantage of outside-funded travel opportunities than most members of the General Assembly.
A Target 12 review of Tobon’s annual ethics disclosures shows he has gone on 72 out-of-state trips funded by outside groups since 2014, with the organizations spending a total of $69,549 for his travel expenses over that time.
The most expensive trip was a $5,583 visit to Taiwan in 2019 paid for by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Boston, which is similar to an embassy or a consulate. (Then-Lt. Gov. Dan McKee and then-Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, now a candidate for general treasurer, were among Tobon’s travel companions on that trip.)
The American Israel Education Foundation spent $3,500 the same year on plane tickets, lodging and food for Tobon to visit Israel. He went to Hawaii in 2016 at a cost of $1,800 to the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, and also made outside-funded visits to destinations including Las Vegas, Miami, Los Angeles and San Juan.
Tobon remains active in other national organizations, as well. He is seen at the center of a group photo on the “Membership” page of the Board of Latino Legislative Leaders, which held its own event in Denver in the days leading up to the NCSL summit. (State Sen. Sandra Cano and state Rep. Karen Alzate were among the attendees.)
Tobon is also still listed as secretary of the executive committee of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, a group that receives significant funding from Verizon and Walmart. That organization — which has paid for a number of Tobon’s trips over the years — hasn’t responded to requests for comment about his situation since May.
Appearing on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers last month, Shekarchi emphasized that he removed Tobon from the Finance Committee as soon as he learned of Target 12’s findings, but he shrugged off questions about whether Tobon should keep receiving his taxpayer compensation after he stopped showing up to the State House.
“He has to make those choices,” Shekarchi said. “That’s between him and the voters.”
Tobon is not seeking re-election in District 58. Four candidates are running in the Democratic primary to succeed him: Matthew Carvalho, Cherie Cruz, George Hovarth, and Maribel Echeverry McLaughlin. No Republicans or independents filed to run for the seat.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Eli Sherman contributed to this report.