Ken Block: RI is Racing to Tread Water

Monday, June 15, 2015


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Ken Block

There is not a better example of what is broken with Rhode Island than what happened over the last two weeks with the firefighter overtime bills that were submitted to our General Assembly.

Rhode Island firefighter’s unions, very late in the legislative session, submitted a bill to mandate overtime for all hours that a firefighter works over 42 hours per week. This bill was at odds with federal law, which permits firefighters to work 53 hours per week before overtime kicks in.

Typically, bills cannot be submitted this late in the legislative session, which should end before July. For a bill to be submitted this late, the Speaker must specifically allow the bill to be introduced, overriding the legislature’s rules of operation.

The bills (one in the House, and one in the Senate) did not have financial impact statements attached to them. This is notable, because the General Assembly has a rule that these statements, called fiscal notes, are supposed to accompany bills that have a material economic impact.

Rhode Island’s mayors and town managers did supply some economic data, suggesting that the impact of these bills could cost Rhode Island municipalities many tens of millions of dollars annually statewide.

The bills enjoyed a rocket ship ride through the General Assembly, receiving Labor Committee hearings within days of being submitted.  Notice was even given that the House and Senate Labor Committees were prepared to take up or down votes on the bills last Thursday – just over a week from when they were introduced.

Rhode Island’s General Assembly took 51 years before it allowed an up or down vote to be taken on eliminating the master lever, but it was prepared to smash through a costly, special interest bill defining firefighter overtime in a disadvantageous way for RI taxpayers in just one week.

A full court press by mayors, town manager and advocates was required to ultimately beat the bills back.

All of that time and energy, just to keep our desperate economic situation from getting even worse.

How can the General Assembly claim to be all about improving Rhode Island’s economic condition when it allows such a harmful and nonsensical bill to enjoy the special attention the overtime bills received?

There are roughly 2,000 career firefighters in Rhode Island. Why does a special interest bill they desire narrowly miss receiving an up or down vote, while the line-item veto bill, which more than 1,300 voters have sent email to the Speaker asking him to pass, gets sent to the legislative equivalent of Siberia – held for further study, never to be ‘studied’ again this session.

Why would the General Assembly come so close to passing a firefighter overtime bill that would have been unique (in a really bad way) compared to the rest of the country? Rhode Island is one of only six states that do not have a line-item veto. Let’s race to fix that one up, okay Mr. Speaker??

We have serious problems that need fixing.  Rhode Island still lags most of the rest of the country economically, businesses can and do pick Massachusetts over Rhode Island because Massachusetts is a business friendlier place, our infrastructure is literally falling down, our schools underperform, we have cities and towns in financial distress and we have fire districts in Coventry, Lincoln and who knows where else circling the fiscal drain.

How Not to Fix RI

And with all of our issues that need fixing, our General Assembly feels compelled to address the burning need of defining firefighter overtime differently than well-established federal law.

You want to know what is wrong with Rhode Island – go read that last sentence again, and again, and again.

Taxpayer advocates and mayors and town managers spend all of their time playing defense, trying to not have the status quo get worse.

How will we ever make things better when the special interests have the obscene ability to manipulate harmful legislation through our General Assembly without a shred of research being done by the Assembly to ensure that the bill will benefit all Rhode Islanders?

We need to do things differently. We need legislative leadership to actually make economic recovery the first priority of the legislature – and not just pay the idea lip service.  Rhode Island will not become a place people race to move to when our local taxes are amongst the highest in the country.

Rhode Island’s per capita cost of fire protection was the highest in the country of any place that I compared.  Why would our General Assembly take action that would have made the cost of fire protection go even higher?

Now that disgraced former Speaker Fox is headed off to jail, it is time for our General Assembly to pass a meaningful ethics bill that puts back in place the Ethics Commission’s oversight of the legislature as the voters demanded.

Rhode Islanders have always tolerated the wink and nod politics that comes along with being such a small state, but this tolerance is wearing very thin. Will leadership arise within the General Assembly that is dedicated to reform? Are there heroes within the General Assembly ready to take the status quo head on and fundamentally change that institution from the inside?

Until the General Assembly becomes the driver of change, Rhode Island will continue to tread water, growing more and more weary spending all of that energy to just bob on the water, like a piece of flotsam.


Related Slideshow: Rhode Island’s History of Political Corruption

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Buddy Cianci

Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci resigned as Providence Mayor in 1984 after pleading nolo contendere to charges of assaulting a Bristol man with a lit cigarette, ashtray, and fireplace log. Cianci believed the man to be involved in an affair with his wife. 

Cianci did not serve time in prison, but received a 5-year suspended sentence. He was replaced by Joseph R. Paolino, Jr. in a special election. 

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Joseph Bevilacqua

Joseph Bevilacqua was RI Speaker of the House from 1969 to 1975, and was appointed as Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court in 1976.  It was alleged that Bevilacqua had connections to organized crime throughout his political career.  

According to a 1989 article that appeared in The New York Times at the time of his death:

The series of events that finally brought Mr. Bevilacqua down began at the end of 1984... stating that reporters and state police officers had observed Mr. Bevilacqua repeatedly visiting the homes of underworld figures.

The state police alleged that Mr. Bevilacqua had also visited a Smithfield motel, owned by men linked to gambling and drugs...

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Thomas Fay

Thomas Fay, the successor to Bevilacqua as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, resigned in 1993, and was later found guilty on three misdemeanor counts of directing arbitration work to a partner in his real estate firm, Lincoln Center Properties.  

Fay was also alleged to use court employees, offices, and other resources for the purposes of the real estate firm.  Fay, along with court administrator and former Speaker of the House, Matthew "Mattie" Smith were alleged to have used court secretaries to conduct business for Lincoln, for which Fay and Smith were business partners. 

Fay was fined $3,000 and placed on one year probation. He could have been sentenced for up to three years in prison. 

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Brian J. Sarault

Former Pawtucket Mayor Brian J. Sarault was sentenced in 1992 to more than 5 years in prison, after pleading guilty to a charge of racketeering.  

Sarault was arrested by state police and FBI agents at Pawtucket City Hall in 1991, who alleged that the mayor had attempted to extort $3,000 from former RI State Rep. Robert Weygand as a kickback from awarding city contracts.

Weygand, after alerting federal authorities to the extortion attempt, wore a concealed recording device to a meeting where he delivered $1,750 to Sarault.

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Edward DiPrete

Edward DiPrete became the first Rhode Island Governor to be serve time in prison after pleading guilty in 1998 to multiple charges of corruption.

He admitted to accepting bribes and extorting money from contractors, and accepted a plea bargain which included a one-year prison sentence.

DiPrete served as Governor from 1985-1991, losing his 1990 re-election campaign to Bruce Sundlun.

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Plunder Dome

Cianci was forced to resign from the Mayor’s office a second time in 2002 after being convicted on one several charges levied against him in the scandal popularly known as “Operation Plunder Dome.” 

The one guilty charge—racketeering conspiracy--led to a five-year sentence in federal prison. Cianci was acquitted on all other charges, which included bribery, extortion, and mail fraud.

While it was alleged that City Hall had been soliciting bribes since Cianci’s 1991 return to office, much of the case revolved around a video showing a Cianci aide, Frank Corrente, accepting a $1,000 bribe from businessman Antonio Freitas. Freitas had also recorded more than 100 conversations with city officials.

Operation Plunder Dome began in 1998, and became public when the FBI executed a search warrant of City Hall in April 1999. 

Cianci Aide Frank Corrente, Tax Board Chairman Joseph Pannone, Tax Board Vice Chairman David C. Ead, Deputy tax assessor Rosemary Glancy were among the nine individuals convicted in the scandal. 

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N. Providence Councilmen

Three North Providence City Councilmen were convicted in 2011 on charges relating to a scheme to extort bribes in exchange for favorable council votes. In all, the councilmen sought more than $100,000 in bribes.

Councilmen Raimond A. Zambarano, Joseph Burchfield, and Raymond L. Douglas III were sentenced to prison terms of 71 months, 64 months, and 78 months, respectively. 

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Charles Moreau

Central Falls Mayor Charles Moreau resigned in 2012 before pleading guilty to federal corruption charges. 

Moreau admitted that he had give contractor Michael Bouthillette a no-bid contract to board up vacant homes in exchange for having a boiler installed in his home. 

He was freed from prison in February 2014, less than one year into a 24 month prison term, after his original sentence was vacated in exchange for a guilty plea on a bribery charge.  He was credited with tim served, placed on three years probation, and given 300 hours of community service.

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Joe Almeida

State Representative Joseph S. Almeida was arrested and charged on February 10, 2015 for allegedly misappropriating $6,122.03 in campaign contributions for his personal use. Following his arrest, he resigned his position as House Democratic Whip, but remains a member of the Rhode Island General Assembly.

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Gordon Fox

The Rhode Island State Police and FBI raided and sealed off the State House office of Speaker of the House Gordon Fox on March 21--marking the first time an office in the building has ever been raided. 

Fox pled guilty to 3 criminal counts on March 3, 2015 - accepting a bribe, wire fraud, and filing a false tax return. The plea deal reached with the US Attorney's office calls for 3 years in federal prison, but Fox will be officially sentenced on June 11.


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