PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island GOP is calling on the R.I. Ethics Commission to expand its investigation into state officials’ now-infamous interactions with a Philadelphia company after the revelation that the contractor’s lobbyist treated Gov. Dan McKee to lunch in January.
The state Republican Party lambasted the Democratic governor Wednesday, alleging McKee’s failure to pick up the $228 lunch tab at The Capital Grille in Providence violated the state’s ethics code, which prohibits public officials from accepting gifts worth more than $25.
The accusation is the latest development in an ongoing scandal tied to a disastrous March business trip two high-ranking state officials took to visit the contractor, Scout Ltd., in Philadelphia. One of those officials resigned last week after Scout accused him of unprofessional conduct, and the trip is being examined by both the ethics panel and the state police.
“The Scout scandal just gets worse for Rhode Island’s reputation,” GOP Chairman Joe Powers said in a statement. The Rhode Island officials’ behavior has been covered by national outlets including The New York Times and The Washington Post, and some of their reported remarks have become a punchline on social media.
The governor’s lunch — first reported by The Providence Journal — happened on Jan. 19 with Scout officials and their lobbyist, Jeff Britt, who were seeking state money to rehabilitate the long-defunct Cranston Street Armory in Providence. Britt told the Journal he paid for the lunch and never sought reimbursement from the governor’s campaign account.
McKee defended his actions Wednesday, insisting he wasn’t aware ahead of time that Scout officials would be at the lunch, which he said Britt set up. The governor confirmed the lunch was also attended by his fundraising chairman, Jerry Sahagian.
“My lunch — I don’t think it even totaled up to 25 bucks — maybe 30 bucks — whatever the number was,” McKee said. “If Jeff wants the money back, I’ll give him the money back.”
The governor acknowledged he didn’t leave after realizing Scout officials would be joining the meal, saying he didn’t think “it was the courtesy thing to do.” McKee said they engaged in a discussion about the Armory, “but we made no commitments.”
“My schedule was so jammed that day I left early on the lunch and turned to Jerry to take care of the lunch,” he said.
In response to a request from Target 12, the governor’s office released a copy of his schedule for the day of the lunch. It showed a one-hour window at noon marked “Private” — a sign the governor was engaged in a non-official activity — before his next meeting around 1:15 p.m. at the State House.
Last week staffers on the Ethics Commission took the unusual step of filing their own complaint against the two officials on the trip, David Patten and Jim Thorsen, alleging they violated the ethics code’s ban on taking gifts worth more than $25. Powers said the governor engaged in the same violation when he didn’t pay for his lunch with Scout and Britt.
“Does Governor McKee decide whether to fund a project based on the amount of donations or free lunches he gets?” Power said. “If a proposed project is too expensive, McKee should just reject it. No wonder businesses stay away from Rhode Island.”
McKee has faced scrutiny from the Ethics Commission before. In 2019, as lieutenant governor, McKee paid a $250 fine after Target 12 discovered that he’d failed to disclose his acceptance of a $3,500 trip to Asia paid for by an arm of Taiwan’s government. He said the omission was accidental.
As Target 12 first reported in April, the Philadelphia trip went so badly that Scout officials quickly penned an email shared with state leaders accusing Patten of making sexist and racist remarks toward people they visited.
Scout also accused Thorsen — Patten’s boss at the time — of failing to intervene, and both men are under the microscope for failing to pay for an expensive lunch in Philadelphia. (State officials said Thorsen later reimbursed the meal.)
Patten is also accused of not paying for expensive gifts, including a pair of shoes and vegan cheese, and Thorsen allegedly told him the gifts were “de minimis” — small enough to avoid triggering ethics rules.
Powers also took aim at Britt, alleging the veteran political operative failed to disclose the January meal on lobbyist disclosure forms filed with R.I. Secretary of State. A review of Britt’s January and February reporting documents show no mention of the lunch.
Britt declined to comment.
“After the gift-grabbing escapade by high-ranking Rhode Island public officials in Philadelphia, now we learn that Governor McKee accepted a free lunch from a lobbyist, and that lobbyist, who was previously indicted for violating campaign finance law, is now violating Rhode Island’s lobbying disclosure laws,” Powers said, calling on Secretary of State Gregg Amore should investigate Britt’s lobbying practices. (Britt was found not guilty in the campaign-finance case.)
Asked whether the secretary of state’s office is taking any action related to the lunch, Amore spokesperson Faith Chybowski said: “Based on the reported situation, the Public Information Division has issued a communication to Jeff Britt asking him to correct any relevant reports that may be missing information.”
The disclosure of the previously unreported lunch came when Scout officials gave The Journal their first extended interview about their interactions with the McKee administration.
They said administration officials pressured them to give up a $25,000-a-month retainer fee they have been collecting as the state decides whether to fund their plan for redeveloping the Armory. At one point, the state stopped paying the fee.
Scout development director Everett Abitbol told the newspaper he received a text earlier this year from Patten saying it would “go a long way for the governor if you weren’t collecting this monthly holding fee.”
McKee said the state is now up-to-date with its monthly payments to Scout, but he acknowledged he wasn’t “comfortable paying dollars for holding a developer that was already paid a significant amount of dollars.”
(Rhode Island paid Scout upwards of $400,000 in December for the Armory redevelopment plan, which included a proposal for a soccer field, co-working offices and community space.)
The Scout officials said they came away from the January lunch feeling assured McKee would commit state money for the Armory project, which they estimated would cost more than $56 million. They also made two $500 campaign contributions to McKee.
However, McKee never proposed funding for Scout’s project, and on Wednesday he rejected the idea that he would have made such a commitment during an informal lunch. He also expressed frustration with Scout for talking to news organizations about the ongoing project.
“I’m not going to negotiate terms with Scout through the media,” McKee told reporters.
Tim White and Ted Nesi contributed to this report.