PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Ethics Commission has opened an investigation into whether Gov. Dan McKee violated state law when a lobbyist treated him to lunch at a high-end restaurant in January.
The ethics panel voted 5-0 to open the probe based on a complaint filed last month by the Rhode Island Republican Party. The GOP called into question a Jan. 19 meal where State House lobbyist Jeff Britt and his clients- — executives of Scout Ltd. — met with McKee and his fundraising chairman, Jerry Sahagian.
Britt said The Capital Grille Restaurant meal in Providence cost $228 and he picked up the tab after Sahagian told him he “did not have the campaign credit card.” The state ethics code prohibits officials from accepting items worth $25 or more from those seeking to do business with the government.
R.I. Board of Elections campaign finance records show Britt’s clients also gave McKee two $500 campaign donations the same day as the lunch.
“I would like to thank the Ethics Commission for launching an investigation into Governor McKee for their unethical conduct,” Rhode Island GOP chairman Joe Powers said in a statement. “The Ethics Commission needs to expose Rhode Island’s pay-to-play political culture.”
McKee has downplayed the significance of the lunch, repeatedly saying people were making a “mountain out of a molehill.” He has called the GOP allegations “a political complaint,” arguing the political group is using the ethics commission “to get a headline in the local papers to cause problems that don’t exist.”
On Tuesday, McKee campaign spokesperson Mike Trainor doubled down on the argument, saying “the complaint is politically, not ethically, motivated by the GOP.”
“The campaign looks forward to the conduct and conclusion of the investigation by the Ethics Commission,” Trainor added in a statement.
After news broke about the free lunch earlier this month, the McKee campaign said they sent a check to reimburse Britt.
The ethics commission will now look into the circumstances surrounding the allegations, and determine whether the governor violated the state ethics code.
The lunch in question came at the same time Scout executives were seeking public support to move forward with a redevelopment plan for the Cranston Street Armory in Providence. The governor didn’t include any money in his budget for the project. And the relationship has since broken down amid a swirl of controversy including a highly problematic business trip two former state directors took in March to visit the company in Philadelphia.
The governor earlier this month canceled the state’s business relationship with Scout after a commissioned report determined in part the company’s redevelopment plan would lose the state $10.5 million over the next 15 years.
The decision also came as McKee was butting heads publicly with Scout executives, who have been critical of the way his administration conducts business.
The Scout officials — Lindsay Scannapieco and Everett Abitbol — wrote an email to McKee and other state leaders after the Philadelphia trip, alleging former state property director David Patten acted “blatantly sexist, racist and unprofessional.”
They also accused his then-boss Jim Thorsen of failing to intervene. The allegations spurred a R.I. State Police investigation and a separate state ethics probe. The botched trip made national news and both directors have since resigned.