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Gordon Fox Denies Conflict of Interest in Zoning Board Request

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

 

Gordon Fox believes his role as an attorney and his role as Speaker of the House aren't in conflict in his representation of Kartabar Restaurant.

As Speaker of the House of Representatives, Gordon Fox is one of the most powerful and influential political figures in Rhode Island.

In his day job as an attorney in Providence, however, Fox sometimes has to represent clients who need him to deal directly with those in power on city boards and offices.

It’s the type of association that could lead some to wonder if there is a conflict of interest between Fox’s dual roles as a State Representative and as an attorney but, at least in the case of an entertainment license renewal for a Thayer Street based- restaurant, the Providence Democrat says there’s no need for concern.

In a motion to the Providence Board of Licenses issued at the end of December of last year, Fox asked for an extension of a special use permit issued to Kartabar Restaurant & Lounge, located at 284 Thayer Street.

The motion was meant for the restaurant to continue providing entertainment at its establishment while the Zoning Board scheduled a review to decide whether or not to permanently allow the venue to have an entertainment license after initially granting it on a one-year probationary basis.

It was a typical motion that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if filed by most attorneys but anytime the Speaker of the House makes an official legal request, it carries a special significance, even if said Speaker would prefer to keep his work life and life as an elected official separate.

Further, Fox said, there are specific rules of conduct in place which allow him to perform his duties as an attorney without running afoul of his responsibilities as a member of the General Assembly.

“Attorneys are governed by the RI Professional Conduct Rules, State Officials are governed by State Code of Ethics,” Fox said Monday. “These are very specific rules and neither of these prohibits me from representing clients in front of this body. The state code of ethics that governs employees and officials does not prohibit me from representing private clients in front of municipal boards.”

Fox says he believes that when it comes time for his client’s hearing, those on the Zoning Board will not view him as Gordon Fox, Speaker of the House but simply as they would view any attorney representing any client.

The Case At Hand

At issue is the granting of a permanent entertainment license for Kartabar but the bigger topic at hand may be the evolution of Thayer Street.

Once a hotspot for college kids from Brown, RISD and Johnson and Wales, Thayer Street has changed in recent years to a different type of social scene and the addition of live music and entertainment at the establishment that bills itself as a “Mediterranean Bistro” was introduced on a trial basis to see what, if any, impact it would have on neighbors and surrounding businesses.

The worry was that it might lead to a “club” type atmosphere but, so far, neighbors say they haven’t seen much of an impact or change since the license was issued in December of 2011.

“We haven’t had an issue with Kartabar having their entertainment license,” said College Hill Neighborhood Association (CHNA) President Allison Spooner. “We really haven’t noticed a change, there really hasn’t been an impact that we’ve noticed since they’ve gotten their entertainment license per se. I think they’ve been extremely responsible as far as the level of noise and their traffic, kind of how it interacts with the rest of the businesses so honestly we haven’t had any issue with it.”

No Complaints So Far

Spooner says that, so far, the CHNA hasn’t received any complaints about Kartabar though her organization hasn’t formally adopted a position as to whether or not they would endorse the restaurant receiving its license on a permanent basis.

“We realize that there were restrictions put in place to make sure there was a balance between their business as well as just the quality of life on Thayer Street as far as residents go. We’re still kind of looking into it as a board,” she said. “We haven’t sent a letter in support or opposition at this point. That’s something that’s still being reviewed.”

Spooner says that she has “heard nothing outside of positive comments about Kartabar” personally and that “nothing’s been brought to the attention of the board,” but the fate of the establishment’s license will remain in the air until next week’s Zoning Board meeting.

Fox Says He Won’t Be Treated Different

It seems unlikely the restaurant’s request will be denied as a Zoning Board representative reported Monday that they had yet to receive any complaints about the establishment but, in the meantime, Fox says he’s focused on doing his duties as an attorney representing his clients.

And he doesn’t believe he’ll receive any special treatment just because of his position as Speaker of the House.

“I expect that the members of the board would act in a professional manner with full allegiance to their duties to the city and the citizens of Providence,” he said. “I would expect that they are viewing me as attorney Gordon Fox only, as well they should be.”

Fox wouldn’t comment as to why he filed the motion for Kartabar or why he feels there had been no formal scheduling date for the hearing from Zoning.

He also would not answer when asked if there were other instances of clients he represents that could be potential conflicts of interest between his dual roles but says he has an obligation to ensure such conflicts don’t arise.

“It would be inappropriate to discuss [specific clients], as it is covered by attorney client privilege but as any attorney and any other government official it my duty to avoid any conflict of interest,” he said.

 

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