Supreme Court Strikes Down Projo’s Effort to Gain Access to Caleb Chafee’s Records

Monday, April 11, 2016


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The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled against the Providence Journal (GateHouse Media) and upheld a lower court’s decision from turning over records tied to an incident involving then-Governor Lincoln Chafee’s son.

The incident took place in the spring of 2012. As GoLocal reported in August of that summer, “Governor Lincoln Chafee’s son pleaded no contest today to social host law violations. Caleb Chafee, 18, will be forced to pay a $500 fine and perform 30 hours of community service."

After a young woman was seen vomiting after drinking too much on his family’s property during a May party, Chafee’s son reportedly encouraged his friends to leave the party and then call 911 for the girl.

In the decision handed down by the Supreme Court today:

In this appeal, the Providence Journal Company… sought review of an order granting summary judgment entered against them and in favor of the Rhode Island Department of Public Safety, the Rhode Island State Police, and Steven G. O’Donnell, in his capacity as the Commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Public Safety and Superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police (collectively, defendants).  

The Journal filed suit in Providence County Superior Court alleging violations of Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA), G.L. 1956 chapter 2 of title 38, after they unsuccessfully requested records from the Rhode Island State Police concerning an investigation of an underage drinking incident at property owned by the then-Governor, Lincoln Chafee.  On appeal, the Journal took issue with the Superior Court’s determination that disclosure of the requested documents “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and, thus, were not subject to public disclosure pursuant to the APRA.”

The Supreme Court reaffirmed the Superior Court decision to deny the Providence Journal access to the records. Judge Robinson recused himself


Related Slideshow: Grading the Chafee Administration

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Darrell West

Vice President and Director of Governance Studies, Brookings Institution 

Chafee Grade:  A for honesty,  B for fiscal reform, C for economic performance.

Administration wins: Governor Chafee’s best accomplishment was pushing the marriage equality bill into law. That is a signature achievement that forced him to overcome several high-profile opponents. In a small state that remains fairly conservative on social issues, that was a big step forward. Future generations will see that as a great demonstration of leadership on his part. Another landmark bill was the public pension reform. Working with other state leaders, he encouraged people to tackle the long term funding problems associated with state employees and helped the General Assembly adopt a landmark bill. It will save the state millions of dollars down the road and help put the state on a more sustainable path. He also deserves credit for running a very honest administration that did not engage in the corruption we have seen in the past.

Administration losses: His biggest challenge has been the economy. Rhode Island always is the first into recession and the last to come out, and this continues to be the case. The state’s economy has been slow to revive and lags the national recovery.  It is hard to know what he could do to create jobs and lower the unemployment rate, but the fact that it remains stubbornly high has fueled discontent and made it difficult for people to feel good about the state’s direction.

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Laurie White

President, Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce

Chafee Grade:   B.  Leading in today’s polarizing environment is not easy and we should thank those who step up to the plate with the best of intentions.

Administration wins: Successfully shepherding the Shared Nursing Education Facility at South Street Landing, thus setting the stage for significant knowledge economy investment in the region. This was a huge accomplishment, and we extend our congratulations.

Administration losses: It was unfortunate that the early days of his administration were rocky with sales tax proposals and litigation around 38 Studios which had the practical effect of dampening economic development activity. Relations improved substantially in the final years.

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M. Teresa Paiva Weed

Senate President, Rhode Island General Assembly

Chafee Grade:  N/A

Administration wins: I will leave it to others to assign grades, but will say that it has been a privilege to work with Governor Chafee. He prioritized investment in education and workforce development, which will better prepare Rhode Island students and workers for the jobs of a modern economy. He emphasized regulatory reform and customer service, helping to change the culture at state agencies such as the Department of Environmental Management and the Division of Motor Vehicles. His strong environmental stewardship carries on the tradition of his father, and will leave a lasting legacy for generations of Rhode Islanders. He was never afraid to stand on principle, regardless of whether it was the politically opportune thing to do. He is upstanding and honest, and it was an honor to have served alongside him in government.

Administration losses: 

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Victor Profughi

Adjunct Professor of Political Science, URI

Chafee Grade:  D-

Administration wins: He has to be given some of the credit for the pension overhaul.

Administration losses: Unfortunately Lincoln Chafee has considerable difficulty stating clearly and succinctly what he wishes to say and seems to be overly successful in sticking his foot in his mouth.  In addition, he gave the appearance of catering too much to “progressive” notions, and seemed almost totally incapable of working with the legislative leadership.

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Mike Stenhouse

CEO, Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity

Chafee Grade:  F 

Administration wins: Not blocking the recent corporate and estate tax reforms. 

Administration losses: Jobs and the economy.  The state's relative near-bottom of the barrel rankings as compared with other states has not improved to any degree as the drag of increased spending levels and associated taxes continue to harm the economy. 

Mr. Chafee apparently believes that low and moderate income families are better off surviving under public assistance programs, than they would thriving in a growth economy -- our center disagrees and believes that every family can enhance their quality of life if we can only get oppressive spend-and-tax policies out of way of our people and business. 

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Pam Gencarella

OSTPA, a "Voice for the Taxpayers of Rhode Island"

Chafee Grade:  N/A

Administration wins:

Administration losses: Governor Chafee duped RI citizens when he said "Trust Chafee". His political perspective and his actions reveal a disconnect between claiming to take proactive steps to improve RI's economic rankings while supporting his true progressive agenda laid out in his RhodeMapRI plan. The progressive vision aims to equalize disparities in income and housing under the guise of an economic development plan. Scary stuff. Chafee is leaving office without a solid economic plan, no jobs plan, persistently high taxes that squash the middle class and oppressive business regulations.The big question is how does Governor-elect Raimondo see it?  Does she buy into this vision for RI?  If so, it was certainly not a vision that was discussed on the campaign trail.  

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Larry Purtill

President, National Education Association Rhode Island

Chafee Grade:  ​N/A.  I hate to give ratings since he is leaving office and won’t have an opportunity to fix some of the major problems we still have and hopefully the new Governor can.

Administration wins:  While many probably wouldn’t see his administration being all that successful, based on latest polls, especially in terms of jobs and growth, I do think he tried and got at least some promoting the benefits of Rhode Island and living here. Initially anyway, he pushed for the Department of Education to work with teachers, administrators and others to move public education forward but never addressed the fact that the overwhelming majority (based on the poll we did over a year and a half ago with the AFT) of teachers believed their views and insights were often ignored by RIDE and it was up to the General Assembly to correct the NECAP situation and teacher evaluation. From a personal viewpoint, he appointed me to the Board of Education which gave educators another voice there and that was and is important.

Administration losses: 

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Phil West

Historian and former Executive Director, Common Cause RI

Chafee Grade:  C+

Administration wins:  I deeply appreciated his commitment to equal marriage. People who claimed to speak in the name of God were vitriolic in legislative hearings I attended. Without a courageous governor and core of committed legislators, this overdue reform could not have passed.  Historians may see his commitment to genuine pension reform as equally crucial. No state treasurer could have secured passage of the 2011 pension overhaul without the governor’s support. 

Administration losses:  I see him as an honest person and an ethical governor, but he failed to spend political capital in two key areas. 

First, he should have pressed obstinate Senate leaders to let voters consider a constitutional amendment to bring the General Assembly back under the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission. Now that Chafee's term has passed and voters have turned down a constitutional convention, lawmakers remain immune to prosecution even for blatant corruption. 

Second, Gov. Chafee should have insisted that the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) obtain accreditation. A law enacted in 2010 required DCYF to start work with the Council on Accreditation (COA) in 2011. The Chafee administration launched that process with a preliminary review (2012 report attached) but failed to follow through. As a result, vulnerable children suffer further abuses while in state custody. Thousands grow up feeling that no one sees or cares, and families (including both birth parents and foster parents) lack reliable support services. Professional accreditation raises the bar for universities, hospitals, police departments, and child protection agencies in other states. Why not Rhode Island?

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Bob Healey

Lawyer and RI Moderate Part gubernatorial candidate,

Chafee Grade:  D. I usually avoid kicking a person when he is down, but I did give him that during the campaign.

Administration wins: I do not know the inside story, but I was at least interested with the break up with Bob Walsh after the NEA got him elected.  This could be the greatest accomplishment or downfall, but without the inside story, I cannot tell which is which.  I was also very skeptical of the "Trust Chafee" campaign promise.  

Administration losses: His manner of governing is more suited to legislative rather than executive functions, and, as such, he couldn't approach the situation from a point that was required.  He is a personable guy, just not suited for executive functions. Anyone can be Governor, it takes much more to be a good Governor and stay responsive to the people. It is ironic in a way that he once called me and the Cool Moose Party a party of one.  

Photo by Jade Gotauco All Rights Reserved

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June Speakman

Professor of Political Science, Roger Williams University

Chafee Grade:  N/A

Administration wins:  I can say that a couple of his positives were to move the state away from the Studio 38 climate of insider politics, to work with Gen Treasurer Raimondo on the very difficult task of pension reform (whether or not one liked the result, at least they stopped kicking the can down the road), and his sensitivity to the needs of the municipalities.  As a former mayor, the Governor checked in frequently with local mayors and town administrators to get a sense of their needs and how to address them.   The clean air and water bond that was just approved by the voters was largely his initiative and an important legacy.  He also worked hard to diversify appointments to boards and commissions.

Administration losses: 


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