PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — House Speaker Joe Shekarchi said Friday he felt compelled to seek state Rep. Carlos Tobon’s immediate resignation from the House Finance Committee after reviewing the results of a monthslong Target 12 investigation into the lawmaker.
Shekarchi announced Thursday night Tobon had agreed to resign from the powerful panel, which takes the lead in writing the $13 billion annual state budget, at the speaker’s request. The fourth-term Pawtucket Democrat also resigned as co-chair of a task force on federal relief money and as a deputy majority leader.
“It was in the best interest of the House,” Shekarchi, D-Warwick, said in an interview Friday. “I felt, based on your report — Channel 12’s report — that swift action needed to be taken and I was prepared to make that action as speaker.”
Target 12 discovered Tobon has been repeatedly taken to court over allegations he failed to repay money he owed, and that he didn’t disclose those debts on his ethics forms as required. The investigation also led Tobon to acknowledge he lives at a different address in his district than the one he puts on official campaign and voting documents.
“I didn’t want all the activities around him and all the controversies swirling around him to be a distraction from the fine work of the House Finance Committee, and we have an obligation to the people of Rhode Island to put the best product on the table, which is our budget,” Shekarchi added.
In an interview for the report, Tobon acknowledged mistakes but insisted that he never sought to deceive anyone. “They will say they are victims, and so will I,” he told Target 12. He added, “I’ve trusted a lot of these individuals, as well, and I’ve believed in them. Unfortunately, if some people don’t get their way, they become malicious as well.”
“As politicians, we are not perfect,” he said. “I’m human.”
Shekarchi reached out to Tobon on Thursday night after seeing the Target 12 investigation. He described the conversation as “frank” and “open,” adding that Tobon “recognized the controversies around him.”
“He felt strongly about his positions and I felt strongly that as the speaker that I have to act in the best interest of the House,” Shekarchi said. “I made a request to him — he was grateful, he accepted that request. He offered his resignation and I accepted it.”
Tobon has resigned from his various posts at the House, but he remains the representative of District 58, which includes a large portion of Pawtucket. Shekarchi said it’s up to Tobon whether he wants to continue to represent the constituents of his district, while also highlighting that it’s an election year.
“That’s really up to Carlos to make that decision, but ultimately we’re in an election year and ultimately the voters of Pawtucket will make that final decision,” he sad.
In addition to the multitude of financial issues surrounding Tobon, Shekarchi also said he was unaware the his former deputy majority leader was getting legal help from John Manni, a part-time House attorney who makes about $70,000 per year from taxpayers.
Shekarchi — who said he hadn’t talked with Manni yet — said his lawyers were drafting policy Friday that would prohibit House lawyers from representing legislators in personal matters.
“I’m going to have a discussion with him,” Shekarchi said of Manni. “If someone has an ongoing representation, we’re going to make sure they will get substitute counsel as well.”
On Friday afternoon, all legislative staff members received an email from Henry Kinch Jr., executive director of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the General Assembly’s administrative arm. It was headlined, “Staff Attorney Representation of Legislators.”
“It shall be the policy of the General Assembly that no attorney that is an employee of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services shall represent any sitting legislator of the House of Representatives or Senate in any personal matter,” the message said.
“In the event an attorney-client relationship exists at the time of the implementation of this policy, whether or not such relationship is fee-based or non-fee based, the attorney shall take immediate steps to terminate and withdraw from said representation pursuant to the Rhode Island Rules of Professional Conduct,” it continued.
Manni has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
John Marion, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Rhode Island, said the arrangement between Tobon and Manni was problematic because employees of the General Assembly shouldn’t be representing or doing any personal favors for their bosses — the lawmakers.
“That can be a violation of the Code of Ethics potentially, just like you can’t have your employee do your dry cleaning, you can’t have your employee represent you in court,” Marion told Target 12 on Friday.
Shekarchi and Marion weren’t alone in reacting to Target 12’s findings.
Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien said, “The situation and report released is disheartening.”
“It was extremely disappointing to find out and my heart goes out to those who have been hurt by this,” he added. “When something like this is brought to light, it truly does affect the community as a whole.”
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, a Democrat who’s seeking to replace Gov. Dan McKee, has supported Tobon in the past. After the report came out, Gorbea called for an investigation into the various issues surrounding the lawmaker, and her gubernatorial campaign said she had removed a Facebook post that praised Tobon.
“Nellie is disturbed and disheartened by the reports and allegations — they deserve a full investigation by the relevant authorities,” said Dana Walton, a spokesperson for Gorbea. “The voters of Pawtucket deserve better leadership.”
According to two sworn depositions, as well as a 2019 bankruptcy filing and his own interview with Target 12, Tobon has lived at 104 Lawn Ave. in Pawtucket since at least 2013. He’s voted in 14 separate elections over that time, according to the Pawtucket Board of Canvassers.
However, Tobon is registered to vote at 30 Bloomingdale Ave., a home elsewhere in the district that belongs to his parents. Asked about the discrepancy, the secretary of state’s office said the Pawtucket Board of Canvassers had jurisdiction over any issues related to voter registration.
“Per state law, local boards of canvassers have the responsibility for overseeing any challenge to voter’s registration,” spokesperson Johnathan Berard said Friday. “The statute language outlines a specific procedure the local board of canvassers must follow to verify the challenged voter’s registration.”
Tobon also lists 30 Bloomingdale on campaign documents filed with the R.I. Board of Elections. Campaign finance director Richard Thornton said that while Tobon is allowed to use an alternative address on his campaign finance forms, he would need to make that clear on his documents, which he did not.
In response to the Target 12 report, Thornton said, “This information was provided to Mr. Tobon with a request to update his Notice of Organization if necessary.”
Shekarchi, who said he was surprised by the findings detailed by Target 12, argued the issues demanded quick action. The speaker said it was vital that the House, as an institution, avoids any appearance of impropriety.
“It’s important that we try to keep as clear as possible away from those types of activities,” Shekarchi said.
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