PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence City Councilman Luis Aponte has pleaded no contest to one count of felony embezzlement and agreed to resign from the council as part of an agreement with prosecutors, according to the attorney general’s office.
Attorney General Peter Neronha said Aponte, a former council president, was also sentenced to a 4.5-year suspended sentence as part of the plea deal, meaning he will be on probation but will not serve prison time. Court records show three additional charges were dismissed as part of the deal.
The deal was first reported by The Providence Journal.
Aponte, the longtime councilman from Ward 10, was still serving as council president when he was indicted in 2017 with embezzlement after Board of Elections officials found he spent more than $13,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses.
He initially refused to resign as president, but finally stepped aside after more than a week of pressure from colleagues and members of the public. Nevertheless, last fall Aponte managed to narrowly defeat Democratic primary challenger Pedro Espinal, and Ward 10 voters went on to re-elect him with 85% of the vote over independent Russell Hryzan.
Aponte’s trial had been scheduled for September after he rejected a previous plea deal, according to the attorney general.
“Today’s felony conviction of former Councilman Luis Aponte for stealing from his campaign funds once again underscores the importance of holding public officials accountable when they break the law and erode the public’s trust in government,” Neronha said in a statement.
“Using one’s campaign fund to pay personal expenses is a form of public corruption because it may lead to improper influence over official acts, particularly by large-scale donors to whom the public official may feel particularly indebted,” he said.
Aponte’s attorney Edward Roy said Aponte takes responsibility for his actions and has paid full restitution.
“He worked very hard for his constituency during his tenure with the Providence City Council,” Roy said. “Today’s court appearance … is about taking responsibility.
Neronha’s spokesperson Kristy dosReis confirmed Aponte paid the restitution to the Board of Elections prior to being indicted.
Council spokesperson Billy Kepner said the council expects to get Aponte’s resignation letter on Tuesday. He said a special council meeting is likely to be set for next week to accept the resignation, declare the seat vacant and set a date for a special election.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said, “It’s deeply disappointing that once again an elected official has violated the trust of the people of Providence. As public servants we must lead with the utmost moral authority and be fully committed to ethical and transparent government.”
Council President Sabina Matos wrote in a statement, “As public servants, we are held to a higher standard and Councilman Aponte’s resignation is a necessary and important step forward as we continue to focus on creating greater opportunities and improving quality of life for Providence’s residents and taxpayers.”
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea reacted on Twitter:
A spokesperson for Gorbea said the date for the special election to fill Aponte’s seat will be set by the Providence Board of Canvassers and the R.I. Board of Elections based on the city charter.
Aponte has served on the council since 1998 and is now the second member of his own former council leadership team to go down in an embezzlement scandal.
Former council majority leader Kevin Jackson, a Democrat who served as Aponte’s No. 2, was given a prison sentence last fall for misusing campaign funds and misspending money from a taxpayer-funded youth sports program. Ward 3 voters recalled Jackson from office in 2017.
“I hope this sends a message to elected officials across Rhode Island that campaign finance funds are not personal piggy banks,” Ward 14 Councilman David Salvatore said in an interview with Eyewitness News Monday night.
Salvatore called for the passage of an ordinance that would prohibit people who have been indicted to hold leadership positions.
In Sept. 2018, that ethics ordinance was voted down amid arguments that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Aponte was one of the nine councilors to vote “no” on the ordinance, which was introduced by then-Councilman Sam Zurier.
“If there’s a silver lining in any of this, it’s that the laws and procedures and regulations around campaign finance are working,” Salvatore said. “What’s really disheartening is that Councilman Aponte knew he was guilty for months, and now this is going to cost taxpayers thousands of dollars for another special election in Providence. I don’t think that’s right.”
Caroline Goggin contributed to this report.