PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — An outside investigator hired to look into an ethics complaint against Providence’s public safety commissioner recommended in March the complaint be dismissed because a provision of the city’s ethics code is “unconstitutionally vague,” according to a report obtained by Target 12.
Attorney Carl Levin submitted the report of his findings to the city on March 10 after being hired by the Providence Law Department to conduct an investigation into an ethics complaint against Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré, who is also the acting fire chief. The report was released on Friday in response to an Access to Public Records Act request that Target 12 filed on March 13.
The still-pending ethics complaint was filed by City Councilman James Taylor, a former battalion chief at the Providence Fire Department himself, who accused Paré of misusing his position by declining to hire a fire chief because it would decrease his own salary.
The Providence Ethics Commission is pressing forward with the case regardless of the attorney’s report, which was completed before the commission had even voted to open an investigation into the complaint. A probable cause hearing has not yet been scheduled.
In the report, Levin does not opine on the merits of Taylor’s complaint, instead focusing on the legality of the provision of the Providence Ethics Code that Taylor is accusing Paré of violating.
The provision, entitled “misuse of position,” says it is illegal for a city official or employee to “intentionally use his or her official position to secure a special privilege or exemption for himself, herself or any other person.”
Levin, who was paid $150 an hour by the city to investigate the complaint, called the ordinance “unconstitutionally vague” because it does not define what a special privilege is.
“Paré could not have violated a Code of Ethics which does not articulate specific standards against which a public official’s conduct is to be measured or judged,” Levin wrote. “Based upon the foregoing, I conclude that it is not probable that a violation of the City Code of Ethics was committed by Steven Paré, Commissioner of Public Safety. Therefore, I recommend that the Complaint filed by James Taylor against Steven Paré be dismissed.”
Paré declined to comment on the findings.
Andrew Kanter, the chairman of the Providence Ethics Commission, said the commission is still moving forward with the investigation.
“Whatever attorney Levin’s conclusions are, we as a body don’t believe we have the authority to unilaterally overrule the ordinance,” Kanter said Tuesday. “We’re assuming it is enforceable and we’ve authorized the investigation, so I expect the law department to conduct the investigation.”
Unlike the state’s Ethics Commission, the Providence Ethics Commission does not have a budget for staff or its own investigator, relying on the city’s law department to investigate complaints. It is not immediately clear if the law department is planning to investigate beyond Levin’s report.
“The Law Department will work with the Ethics Commission to identify next steps,” said Patricia Socarras, a spokesperson for the city.
At a virtual meeting of the Providence Ethics Commission on May 13, the commissioners voted to assert they would enforce the provision of the Code of Ethics unless a court orders otherwise. The members did not discuss the specific complaint against Paré, but referenced the fact that the constitutionality of the provision had been questioned.
“We don’t write the laws, and we don’t strike them down,” Kanter said at the meeting. “It is not for us to decide that is it so vague that we should just ignore it.”
Councilman Taylor said Tuesday he has confidence in the commission, while calling Levin’s investigation “transparently political.”
“My hope is that they throw out Carl Levin’s investigation,” Taylor said. “He didn’t call me, he didn’t call [Council President] Sabina Matos. … How do you do an investigation without interviewing anyone?”
Matos was the recipient of a letter from Paré that is at the center of the complaint. In the letter, Paré says he did not promote an assistant chief to the vacant job of fire chief because the issue of his own salary had not yet been resolved.
The City Council cut the salary for the public safety commissioner by $40,000 to $125,000 last year, but Paré has continued to receive his previous salary because he is also the acting fire chief, and is paid out of both budget lines. There has not been a permanent fire chief in the department since 2015. (Pare, a former state police colonel, also receives a $106,000 annual state pension.)
“Without council approval for the budget adjustment, I cannot appoint a fire chief for the Providence Fire Department despite our mutual desire to do so,” Paré wrote in the letter to Matos last November.
A spokesperson for Matos confirmed she was not interviewed by Levin for his investigation.
“This report is shameful and nothing less than an attempt to whitewash a serious ethical violation that compromises our city’s public safety,” Taylor said. “How could any attorney sign their name to such a document and expect to be taken seriously?”
Reached by phone, Levin declined to discuss his findings and referred any questions to the city.
Taylor argued in his orginal complaint, filed in December, that Paré’s “refusal to appoint a fire chief” unless his salary is increased amounts to a “quid pro quo,” calling it a “deep ethical conflict as the commissioner is using his position for his own personal gain.”
At the time, Paré argued that Taylor’s complaint was motivated by personal issues from when Paré was his boss. (Levin noted in his report that Taylor had been twice disciplined by Paré and had unsuccessfully applied for the job of fire chief.)
“It is preposterous that Councilman Taylor makes an ethical complaint about the circumstances of appointing a fire chief, based on his record of unethical behavior and dishonesty while a member of the Providence Fire Department,” Paré said in December. “Councilman Taylor continues to be offended for not being selected as the Providence Fire Chief four years ago.”