PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Ethics Commission on Tuesday fined state Rep. Carlos Tobon thousands of dollars, after an investigation revealed he repeatedly violated the state ethics code by failing to report a series of unpaid debts, business ownerships and board memberships.
The ethics probe was launched after a Target 12 investigation back in May documented multiple individuals who said they got burned doing business with Tobon, including while he was representing Pawtucket in the R.I. House of Representatives, and serving on the powerful Finance Committee.
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At the same time that Tobon was helping craft the state’s annual $13 billion spending plan, he was failing to disclose his own financial woes — tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid debt — to the Ethics Commission despite a legal requirement to do so annually.
Tobon also opened a series of limited liability companies over the years in connection with his messy business dealings, Target 12 found, which he also did not disclose in full on the ethics forms.
The Target 12 investigation prompted the Ethics Commission to begin its own examination of his disclosure forms, and R.I. Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki filed a formal complaint against him soon after. The panel voted in June to pursue a full investigation.
During a meeting behind closed doors in Providence on Tuesday morning, the commission voted to adopt a 10-page settlement agreement with Tobon. The report details 15 different violations of state ethics law and levies a $3,600 fine, which Tobon has agreed to pay.
Target 12 attempted to speak to Tobon as he left the meeting, but he declined to comment on the settlement.
“I just came and did what I had to do,” Tobon said while getting into an elevator.
Tobon never showed up to the House again after Target 12’s report aired on May 5, missing the final seven weeks of the legislative session. He was also kicked off the Finance Committee by Speaker Joe Shekarchi just hours after the story came out.
Yet Tobon never resigned his seat, meaning he continues to collect his $17,626 legislative salary and is still being covered by a state health insurance plan worth $22,416.
Asked Tuesday why he stopped showing up for work at the State House, Tobon touched his ear and told Target 12 as the elevator doors closed, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.”
“I respect the due diligence performed by the Ethics Commission that has led to Rep. Tobon agreeing to pay this serious penalty,” Shekarchi said Tuesday. “I took swift action by removing him from his House positions upon learning of the allegations brought to light by WPRI several months ago, and he is not seeking re-election by the voters of Pawtucket this fall.” (Shekarchi did not directly answer a question about whether Tobon should resign.)
R.I. Republican Party chair Sue Cienki said the GOP is pleased with the Ethics Commission’s fine, but said it should have been larger.
“He has been MIA in the [General Assembly] since May,” Cienki tweeted. “The fine should have been larger, taxpayers should recoup his salary.”
John Marion, executive director of good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island and a longtime observer of the Ethics Commission, described the penalty against Tobon as sizable when compared with how much other politicians have paid over the years for leaving information off their disclosure forms.
“Representative Tobon’s fine by the Ethics Commission is a significant one, which is commensurate with his failure to disclose numerous debts and board memberships over a number of years,” Marion said in a statement. “This was not a case of a simple omission, but rather a systematic failure by Representative Tobon to disclose large amounts of information.”
He added, “It is good to see that the Ethics Commission didn’t wait for the public to file a complaint, but initiated the process itself based on the initial WPRI reporting.”
Tobon did comment on the allegations back in May, casting himself as a typical entrepreneur who had suffered setbacks and done what he had to do to survive.
“I think that in part tells the story of America, where somebody gets up and gives it a try,” Tobon said at the time. “When you give it a try there’s risks, there’s a high likelihood you may not make it. And I’ve done that for 20 years. Just tried.”
But Target 12 discovered multiple people have had to sue Tobon to get him to repay the money he borrowed from them, with some of the litigation lasting for years.
The Ethics Commission found that over multiple years, Tobon failed to report five different personal debts, four business interests and six executive positions on his required disclosure forms.
“This settlement recognizes the seriousness and quantity of the respondent’s financial disclosure omissions over a six-year period, while acknowledging the respondent’s willingness to fully cooperate with the investigation, take immediate responsibility for the above violations, and properly amend his financial statements,” reads the settlement, signed by Tobon and Ethics Commission executive director Jason Gramitt.
Tobon’s term ends in January and he is not running for re-election in House District 58 this fall.
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