PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Attorney John Manni has asked a Superior Court judge to remove his name from a case involving Rep. Carlos Tobon, citing a new policy that bars State House lawyers from representing lawmakers in personal disputes.
In the motion filed Monday to withdraw his representation, Manni explained that he’d been defending Tobon in a legal dispute involving an unpaid debt originally totaling $21,000 that the lawmaker had borrowed from a childhood friend in 2005.
In April, a judge ordered Tobon to fully repay the debt, which had grown to more than $45,000 due to interest. In the lawsuit, the childhood friend also accused Tobon of committing fraud when he unlawfully used his parents’ home as collateral for the loan.
The legal dispute was revealed as part of a monthslong Target 12 investigation examining Tobon’s business dealings and financial problems over the past two decades. The story spurred House Speaker Joe Shekarchi on Friday to implement the new policy, prohibiting State House lawyers from representing House and Senate lawmakers in private disputes.
“A recent policy decision set forth at the Statehouse does not allow an employee … to represent a sitting legislator in a personal matter,” Manni wrote in his motion to withdraw. “Further, the policy requires that if an attorney client relationship does exist at the time of the implementation of said policy, the attorney shall take immediate steps to terminate and withdraw from said representation.”
Manni has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Prior to drafting the new policy, Shekarchi said he was unaware of the personal relationship between Tobon and Manni until he saw the Target 12 investigation, adding that he didn’t approve of it.
“There is certainly enough legal work around that people don’t have to get legal work from the state house,” said Shekarchi, who’s also an attorney by trade. “There are plenty of clients around.”
Shekarchi, D-Warwick, also asked for and received Tobon’s resignation from multiple legislative posts — including as a member of the powerful House Finance Committee — along with his position as a deputy majority leader. The speaker said he was surprised by how many people were in disputes with Tobon, and that the issue required “swift and decisive action.”
Tobon, who remains a House lawmaker, has defended his past business dealings and debts — many of which he failed to disclose on state ethics forms, as required by law. While acknowledging he’s made mistakes, Tobon told Target 12 he never meant to deceive anyone.
On Monday, Shekarchi said he will not fill the vacancy left by Tobon on House Finance this session.
“We are nearing the end of the legislative session, and it is too late in the process to appoint a new member of the Finance Committee,” he said in a statement. “The current 14 members have listened to testimony at dozens of hearings.”
The speaker also will not name a new chair of the Finance Subcommittee on Environment and Transportation — which was led by Tobon before his resignation. A spokesperson noted that the panel had already concluded its budget hearings for this year
Vice Chairman Rep. Scott Slater, a Providence Democrat, would be made available to address any questions about prior subcommittee hearings, according to the spokesperson.
Steph Machado contributed to this report.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) 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