Jencunas: The Gordon Fox Saga -  An Opportunity For Republicans

Friday, March 06, 2015

 

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Rhode Island was hardly shocked when Gordon Fox admitted to taking bribes when he was Speaker of the House. Indeed, politics and corruption go together like apple pie and ice cream. 

For the owners of Shark Bar and Grille, paying Fox $52,500 for a liquor license was a bargain. Without scorpion bowls, there’s no way the raucous nightclub-esque bar would have made money. As a friend of mine said when I asked him about Shark, “nobody was going there for the sushi.”

Whenever the government has power, there will be businessmen who want to pay bribes and politicians who want to take them. Some level of corruption is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be reduced with some common-sense reforms – even in Rhode Island.

First, politicians shouldn’t be allowed to serve on city boards in addition to being legislators. Until that’s changed, a bribe for a liquor license or zoning variance can easily be disguised as a campaign contribution. 

Second, Rhode Island should strengthen the state ethics commission. They should be empowered to subpoena legislator’s financial records and randomly audit campaign funds. This would reduce corruption even before the commission took any formal action. The deterrence effect from lawmakers knowing they were being watched more closely would stop the most egregious forms of campaign finance violations. 

Third, legislators should be paid more. This won’t be politically popular, especially as the state faces a budget deficit. However, paying legislators more would make them less dependent on money earned as lawyers, city employees, and other jobs rife with conflicts of interest. It’s a fair trade in exchange for stricter conflict of interest laws. 

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Fourth, the Republican Party should be more aggressive in challenging incumbent lawmakers. Politicians who know they’ll be facing an opponent will be more honest. Fielding more Republican candidates, especially candidates who will investigate their opponents’ finances and force them to answer hard questions, will empower voters to punish ethically challenged politicians.

A platform of reform and honest government would be a strong message for the next Republican running for governor. In neighboring Massachusetts, where the last three Speakers of the House have left office under indictment, Republicans have used this strategy successfully. The last two Republican governors, Mitt Romney and Charlie Baker, both sold themselves to voters as a check on the partisan and unethical legislature. 

Indeed, Buddy Cianci first won election as Providence’s mayor as the anti-corruption, good government candidate. Lincoln Almond had a similar message during his campaign for governor, emphasizing his experience prosecuting political experience as the U.S. Attorney.

Running as the anti-corruption candidate has many political advantages. If done correctly, it implies the opponent is at least complicit in illicit political dealings. Reporters will pick up on the theme and begin questioning the opposing candidate. 

Democrats would be leery of backing aggressive ethics reforms for fear of alienating statehouse supporters before they even win office. The moment the Democrat hesitates, vacillates, or equivocates, the Republican should emphasize the contrast – the Democrat will be more the same, the Republican offers change.

This can’t be the entirety of the Republican governor’s message, but it should be a major part. Political scandals are guaranteed to get lots of press and infuriate voters, making them excellent political ammunition for the opposition party. 

Speaker Fox’s imprisonment raises lots of questions and sends a clear message that something is rotten in the State House. Republicans would be foolish to let that opportunity pass them by.  

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Brian Jencunas works as a communications and media consultant. He can be reached at [email protected] and always appreciates reader feedback.

 

Related Slideshow: The History of Gordon Fox: From Camp St. to Speaker to…

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1992

Reform Candidate

In 1992, Gordon Fox ran for (then) House District 5 seat replacing Dr. Nick Tsiongas.

Fox, an ally of then-Councilman Josh Fenton and former College Hill State Representative Ray Rickman, won the seat easily. 

Gordon Fox (D) 2,253

Michael Mitchell (R) 525

Jay Enderle (I) 407

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1994

Under Harwood 

Gordon Fox gained power right out of the block. He was appointed to Finance immediately and rose quickly to be Chairman of the House Finance Committee - arguably one of the three or four most powerful positions in Rhode Island state government.
 
As Finance Committee Chair he emerged as a supporter of progressive causes.
 
In addition, Fox scored a job in then-Mayor Buddy Cianci's Law Department.
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2002

Murphy - Fox Team 2002

John Harwood was forced out as Speaker and the combo of the popular Bill Murphy from West Warwick and Gordon Fox teamed up to take control of the House. Murphy and Fox were young, both grew up in working class neighborhoods and lawyers.
 
The two of them were popular and press savvy - together they guided the team for nearly a decade.
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2003

Fox and GTech and the Ethics Commission 2003

In 2003, Majority Leader Fox faced harsh criticism and an investigation for his law firm's role and his involvement in the effort to reach an agreement with GTECH to stay in RI. Ultimately, Fox pleaded guilty and was issued one of the largest penalties in the history of the Ethics Commission.
 
Pursuant to the above Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Mitigating Factors, the Prosecution and the Respondent agree, pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-13(d), to the imposition by the Commission and to payment by the Respondent of a civil penalty of Ten Thousand ($10,000) Dollars. The above terms represent the full and complete Informal Resolution and Settlement for Complaint Nos. 2003-6 and 2003-7.
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2004

Openly Gay - 2004

In 2004, Gordon Fox announced that he was openly gay. The announcement was a breakthrough for the gay community at the time.  He became the first openly gay speaker of any House of Representatives.
 
He married his long-time partner Marcus LaFond in November of 2013.
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2010

Speaker of the House

The rise of Gordon Fox was now complete. In February of 2010, Fox was elected Speaker of the House. He was the first Minority to rise to such a position of power in Rhode Island's history.
 
It was a remarkable trip from being bullied as a kid for being mixed-race in a predominately black neighborhood to the most powerful political position in the State of Rhode Island.
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2007 - 2010

Fox and 38 Studios

The genesis of 38 Studios started when Gordon Fox's close friend and fundraiser Michael Corso hosted a private meeting between Fox and 38 Studios executives. This meeting was the spark for the General Assembly passing special legislation after the legislative deadline. The result, $75 million to 38 Studios.
 
The Fox and Corso relationship included Corso being the landlord to Fox's now husband Marcus LaFond's hair salon.
 
As GoLocal reported in July of 2012:
 
House Speaker Gordon Fox on Tuesday wrote a check to the business owned by 38 Studios insider Michael Corso to cover previously undocumented expenses from a March 2007 fundraiser, according to a letter obtained by GoLocalProv.
 
The $648 payment came nearly two months after initial inquires into the event, which was hosted by Corso, Steven Nappa and Robert Britto of Nappa Building Corp. and former State Representative Ray Rickman. Fox spokesman Larry Berman said the payment will appear on Fox’s third quarter campaign finance reports.
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2013

Fox and Gay Marriage

Gordon Fox was an advocate for the passage of civil unions and then marriage equality legislation. Both bills languished for years. Then, Senator Donna Nesselbush arrived in the legislature and changed the political dynamics.
 
Nesselbush created a new political dynamic in the Senate and drove the effort to push the legislation through the Senate. Combined, Fox and Nesselbush ushered through gay marriage legislation through both Chambers.
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2010-2013

Providence Economic Development Partnership 

Speaker Fox did work for a number of applicants for the federally investigated Providence Economic Development Partnership (PEDP). GoLocalProv, which has written more than 50 articles on PEDP, reported in January that the RI Ethics Commission had fined Fox for a second time tied to his PEDP work:
 
The Rhode Island Ethics Commission has fined Speaker of the House Gordon Fox $1500 for violating the state's code of ethics.  
 
Fox was fined $500 for each of the three years between 2007 and 2009 he did not report income for legal work with the Providence Economic Development Partnership, the quasi-public agency under the Department of Planning and Development for the City of Providence.
 
In 2004, Fox was fined $10,000 by the Ethics Commission while House Majority leader for voting on a no-bid deal for GTECH in which his law firm was involved.  
 
Statement in Response:
 
Fox's lawyer, Albin Moser, Esq., issued the following statement following the ruling on Tuesday:
 
“Speaker Fox had stated from the beginning that if the Ethics Commission would like his Financial Disclosure report to be amended, then he would do so. That being the case, Speaker Fox has amended his reports for 2007, 2008 and 2009.
 
In keeping with past practice of the Commission, there is usually a fine involved. He will pay the fine of $500 per year for each of those three years.
 
He did not list work for PEDP in those years because he believed he was a subcontractor to Joshua Teverow’s law firm on his loan closings that were performed at Mr. Teverow’s office.
 
Beginning in 2010 and continuing in 2011 and 2012, Speaker Fox began doing the closings directly for PEDP, which he reported during those three years and the Ethics Commission has acknowledged. He has not performed any work for PEDP since 2012.” 
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2014

Raid and Resignation

On Friday, the State House office of Gordon Fox was raided by RI State Police in conjuction with FBI and IRS agents. This was the first time a State House office was ever raided by law enforcement officials.

By end of day Saturday, Fox had resigned, here is his statement:

The Rhode Island House of Representatives is an institution that I deeply respect and serving my constituents has been a major part of my life for the past 22 years. I will not let yesterday’s events distract my colleagues from addressing the challenges facing Rhode Island.”
 
“Because of the respect I have for all members of the House of Representatives, I am resigning as Speaker. The process of governing must continue and the transition of leadership must be conducted in an orderly manner.”
 
“I want to thank my colleagues and loyal staff for all that we were able to accomplish together. I will continue to serve out the remainder of my term and represent my neighbors and constituents in District 4. That said, I do not intend to seek another term in the House.”
 
“My personal focus going forward will be on my family and dealing with the investigation. Because of the nature of this matter, I will not be commenting further.”
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2015

Fox Pleads to three charges of bribery, wire fraud, and filing a false tax return on March 3, 2015.  

The charges stem from former Speaker Fox’s theft of $108,000 donated by campaign supporters to pay for personal expenses; his acceptance of a $52,000 bribe to advocate and move for issuance of a liquor license for an East Side restaurant while serving as Vice-Chairman of the City of Providence Board of Licenses in 2008; and his failure to account for these illegal sources of income on his tax returns.

 
 

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