ARLENE VIOLET – In R.I., ethics remains hard to find

ARLENE VIOLET – In R.I., ethics remains hard to find

Last week two events reinforced the perception that the state has returned to the “bad ole’ days” when politicians acted like they owned a fiefdom. Here are the new members of the Rhode Island Hall of Shame:

• “Employee X” and Frank Floor, Division chief.

In his most recent Hummel Report, Jim Hummel targeted two employees of the Department of Environmental Management (DEM). The employee, who was not named, asked a DEM vendor, North-Eastern Tree Service Inc., (who has received $1.5 million for past work and who is under contract at present), to fund a cookout for 42 employees of the department. North-Eastern did. The DEM Parks and Recreation staff were told to thank the company workers for the cookout if they saw them in their respective areas. Mr. Floor approved this arrangement.

What universe do these people live in? Do you have to be a Rhodes Scholar to know that you do not ask a vendor to pick up a tab for a party? These two employees should be handed their respective walking papers. It doesn’t matter that Director Floor offered to pay one-half of the tab after the commencement of the Hummel investigation. His tin ear isn’t mitigated by the belated offer to pick up some of the tab or the “ethics training” now ordered for the department.

(Disclosure: I am Chair of the Board of the Hummel Report)

• Gov. Gina Raimondo and her chief of staff, Bret Smiley:

Twin River executive vice president Marc Crisafulli told lawmakers that he had received threats from Smiley because of Twin River’s opposition to the IGT no-bid, 20-year, $1 billion contract. He reported that initially Smiley told him that the state would be helpful because the debt ratio Twin River was supposed to maintain might hurt future growth. When Twin River later that day opposed the IGT deal orchestrated by the governor, it subsequently was fined $180,000 for violating that debt ratio. Crisafulli maintains that Twin River did pay this amount as a settlement without acknowledging any wrongdoing but the governor’s office leaked the fine to the media and attacked the company. Crisafulli also stated that he was told by Smiley that the gambling giant would suffer further regulatory consequences if they opposed Raimondo’s no-bid deal.

First of all, no “settlement” should be shrouded. Nonetheless, Boss Tweed would blush if this tactic was employed as retaliation and/or arm twisting. Fortunately, The state Republican Party has augmented its ethics complaint by adding this element. The Ethics Board should put Smiley and Crisafulli under oath. The governor has been particularly vocal in her day-after-day criticism of Twin River. The reality is that this specter of retaliation further clouds the state’s future regulatory function since it could be perceived as payback rather than merit.

While this above behavior dominated the news at least one state politician, Attorney General Peter Neronha, initiated a worthwhile program by holding office hours in locations throughout the state as well as hosting community meetings. He is correct that residents – particularly in economically depressed communities – don’t know how to access assistance. Kudos to him for holding office hours in Providence and working with other community resources. That’s what public servants are supposed to do, not sponge on or threaten businesses.

Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.