A good government group is calling for changes to the state’s campaign finance system and Ethics Commission in the wake of the Gordon Fox case.
John Marion, Executive Director for Common Cause Rhode Island, said Rhode Island’s General Assembly needs to require campaign finance accounts to be routinely audited.
On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha said former House Speaker Gordon Fox reported in campaign finance filings that he had upwards of $200,000 in his campaign account, when in reality, there was only $52,000. Marion said Fox was able to conceal the truth because the state rarely looks at the actual account balance.
“Gordon Fox raised hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years as Majority Leader, Speaker and House Finance Chair,” Marion told WPRO News. “But, to the best of my knowledge, he was never subjected to a routine audit that the average tax payer is when they do their taxes.”
Marion said the state has “pretty lax controls” over campaign money.
“You can put it in the same bank account as your personal money, which is one problem,” he said. “And unless somebody makes a complaint against you, or unless the Board of Elections staff – which is tiny – has some hunch that something’s wrong, you’re never going to be audited.”
Marion is calling on the General Assembly and Board of Elections to try and change the current system, saying states like Wisconsin and Massachusetts routinely audit politician’s bank accounts.
In addition to the audits, Marion is calling on Rhode Island to restore full jurisdiction to the Ethics Commission over the General Assembly. Marion said there’s a bill in the House and in the Senate that would put the issue before voters and allow them to amend the constitution to restore full power to the commission. In 2009, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled the Ethics Commission didn’t have jurisdiction over members of the General Assembly for their acts as legislators; Marion wants to see that changed.
He also said Fox’s case raises questions about the way the Providence Board of Licenses is run. Fox is charged with taking a bribe from the owners of the Shark Bar and Grille while he served as vice chairman of the board in 2008. Marion said that while Mayor Angel Taveras established a written set of rules for the board during his tenure, the city should take a hard look at those guidelines to make sure they are strong enough to prevent the board from abusing their power.
“Certainly [board members] have to have some discretion, but maybe they have too much,” said Marion.
Marion said the Fox case just underscores the “culture of corruption” in Rhode Island.
“We need to stop rewarding politicians who engage in bad behavior,” he said. “The way we do that is we turn them out at the ballot box.”
And Marion said Fox’s constituents had fair warning: In 2004, Fox was fined $10,000 by the Ethics Commission for voting on a deal that would have benefited his personal law firm.
“It was really a canary in a coal mine….that said to people, ‘Here’s a politician that might not be doing things the way he should be.”
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