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Fox Fallout: Corruption, Ethics, and the Future of Politics in RI

Friday, June 12, 2015

 

A photo from the Fox State House raid in March 2014

Former Speaker of the House Gordon Fox was sentenced on Thursday to three years in federal prison, which were the terms of a plea deal that fell well below federal sentencing guidelines of forty one to fifty one months -- and political experts in the state question the impact it will have on addressing  -- and deterring -- corruption in Rhode Island.

"My feeling is that people in Rhode Island have such a jaundiced view of government in general, there's not much in general you can do to turn it around," said veteran political pollster Victor Profughi. "People are still going to think [politicians] are all crooks."

Fox had pled guilty to bribery, wire fraud, and tax evasion on March 3, 2015, following the first ever FBI and State police raid on the State House to seize documents from the Speaker's office twelve months earlier. 

Providence College political science professor Tony Affigne said that thought despite closing the chapter on the Fox case for now, the state would continue to see "more of the same."

"Sadly, other corrupt politicians are unlikely to be deterred by Fox’s sentence. Like most scofflaws and criminals, crooked politicians are incredibly arrogant, and never think it’ll happen to them. If Fox got caught, they tell themselves, it’s because he was careless," said Affigne.  "And the criminally minded, of course, think they’re smarter than everybody, including prosecutors and the public. I’m afraid we’ll see more of the same before too long."

Length of Sentence?

Sides varied on the reduced three year sentence, but agreed that public perception played a critical factor. 

"I do think its fair, which has little to do with arguments that people were presenting about his civic service. The reason I do is that in all honesty, I think the embarrassment and loss of his livelihood and good name has to be factored in, those are gone," said Profughi.  "No matter how long you put him away, I think he's suffered."

PC's Affigne, along with Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion, said that Rhode Islanders would likely not be placated by rationales for a shorter sentence. 

Fox post-sentencing on Thursday

"In my opinion, three years in federal prison should be enough time for Mr. Fox to reflect on his breach of public trust, and if he really works at it, to learn and grow from the experience," said Affigne. "The public, however, is exhausted by political corruption and in no mood to be generous—especially when average Rhode Islanders, including youth, face more serious punishment for lesser crimes. So no, I don’t believe the public will think the sentence is fair."

Marion, who has been advocating for ethics reform legislation, said that he believed that the public would not view Fox's sentence as fair, despite the losses incurred by Fox himself. 

"It's surprising that the former Speaker was given a sentence at the lighter end of what was available considering that he was the most powerful politician in the state," said Marion. "It's my understanding from the filings that his cooperation, including admitting guilt and voluntarily surrendering his law license, played a big role in that. Many people will not see the lower sentence as fair, but the loss of office and profession are much bigger in some ways than another year behind bars."

Ethics Oversight?

Marion, who has supported legislation to give the state's Ethics Commission oversight over legislators, said that he believes it ultimately needs to go to the voters to decide.

"Gordon Fox perpetuated a fraud against his constituents and his campaign donors for years. What we can do is make sure that anyone like him is going to get caught, and much sooner," said Marion. "The Assembly passed some changes in the wake of Fox's plea earlier this year that will increase the chances his skimming of campaign funds will be detected including requirements that candidates keep their campaign money segregated from their personal funds. "

Will RI see less corruption in a post-Fox era? Not likely, say political experts.

"We believe those are only half measures however, because they don't require the Board of Elections to conduct more audits and they don't give them the necessary resources," continued Marion. "And of course we think the Assembly needs to put the question allowing the voters to restore the Ethics Commission's full jurisdiction on the ballot for voters to decide."

The Rhode Island Republican Party expressed optimism that ethics reform could have a positive impact. 

"To restore public trust in state government we believe in broad ethics reform such as bringing our General Assembly under full jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission," said RI GOP Chair Brandon Bell. 'Routine audits of campaign finance accounts by the Board of Elections would be a good start to deter the potential for abuse."

VIDEO: See Fox React to Sentencing HERE

PC's Affigne went beyond ethics reform -- advocating for publicly funded elections.

"We need to recognize the true cost to the public of "privately financed" elections, and the corruption this campaign system makes possible. It would be cheaper and better for democracy, for Rhode Island to adopt publicly financed elections," said Affigne. "As long as the law allows individuals, businesses, and special interests to buy influence through campaign donations, corruption will be part of the system."

Profughi said that he thought that ethics reform was futile. 

"I know that a lot of good government folks think that if they pass these laws, things will get better," said Profughi. "The wrong doing might be better known, but it won't necessarily prevent or deter folks."

 

Related Slideshow: Fox Scandal: Winners and Losers

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Winner

Peter F, Neronha, U.S. Attorney

The bold action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation coupled with Internal Revenue Service investigators raiding the Speaker of the House's office was a major statement by federal authorities.

The investigation tied to now-former Speaker Fox sets expectations of a far broader probe.

Neronha has also indicted developer Richard Baccari and was key to the http://www.golocalprov.com/news/9949/">Google Settlement that brought $230 million to Rhode Island. 

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Winner

Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed

 

Generally, the Senate President plays second fiddle to the Speaker of the House, but with a new Speaker to be voted on as early as Tuesday, Paiva Weed's influence will shoot up in the transition.

 

She will be more influential in the budget process.

 

Look for Paiva Weed to make a move on controlling the Joint Committee on Legislative Services - the proverbial legislative grab bag for jobs and grants.

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Winner

Majority Leader Nick Mattiello

 

As GoLocal Tweeted on Friday, the Cranston Representative and Majority Leader has the edge to take control of the House.

 

Mattiello (as of Sunday Night) has approximately 40 votes and the momentum necessary to replace Fox.

 

Mattiello has strong support from former Speaker and lobbyist Bill Murphy. A Mattiello Speakership may cause a big shake up in Committee Chairs and senior staffing.

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Winner

Former Speaker Bill Murphy

 

Murphy and Fox worked together for more than a decade and their relationship had both ups and downs. Nick Mattiello, if elected Speaker, is a close ally to former Speaker Bill Murphy.

 

Murphy had served as Speaker from 2003 to 2010. The former legislator has a successful criminal defense practice and is a lobbyist for notable clients (2013) for UTGR (Twin River), Advance America Cash Advance, and the Brotherhood of Correction Officers.

 

Murphy will emerge as an ever greater influencer with Mattiello as Speaker.

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Loser

Gina Raimondo

 

The resignation by Gordon Fox is a political hit to the General Treasurer who went big for Fox in his surprisingly tough re-election against story teller Mark Binder.

 

Binder hit Fox both for his role in 38 Studios and his legal work for PEDP applicants.

 

Raimondo decided to publicly support Fox and walk his district with the embattled Speaker.

 

It should be noted that Providence Mayor Angel Taveras also supported Fox, but Raimondo claims to be the reformer in this race.

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Loser

Fox's Committee Chairs (if Mattiello wins)

 

Fox loyalists who have pledged their support to Michael Marcello will be in trouble as will their agendas if Mattiello is in fact elected Speaker on Tuesday. 

 

Committee Chairs like Helio Mello, Edith Ajello, and Arthur "Doc" Corvese might all be replaced as they backed Marcello. 

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Loser

Providence's Budget

 

For the past decade, Providence could always count of Gordon Fox to help bail the Providence Budget out of trouble.

 

From Finance Committee Chair, then-Majority Leader and ultimately-Speaker, Providence Mayors knew that Fox -- the Mount Hope section of Providence Representative -- would increase aid to Providence in one way or another. 

 

Providence always found an extra few millions from Fox. That access is likely to end in 2014 further impacting the City of Providence's budget issues.

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Loser

Legalization of Marijuana

 

The pieces were falling together for the effort to pass legislation to legalize marijuana in Rhode Island. Speaker Fox was a social progressive. Judiciary Committee Chair Edith Ajello, who may lose her post in the power shift, was the legislation's sponsor and in command of the key committee.

 

In addition, Governor Lincoln Chafee has voiced support for the idea.

 

But, a shift to a more conservative Mattiello would throw a barrier in the way to a 2014 passage.

 
 

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