PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Federal and state law enforcement officials executed two search warrants Friday that targeted House Speaker Gordon Fox’s home and his State House office, but no specifics were made public about what they were looking for or what they were investigating.
Jim Martin, a spokesman for Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha, told WPRI.com the shutdown of Fox’s office on the third floor of the State House was part of a “joint law enforcement action” by the U.S. attorney’s office, the Rhode Island State Police, the FBI and the IRS. Martin confirmed that two search warrants were executed Friday.
Martin said the search warrants and the affidavit in the investigation are sealed.
Fox walked into the front door of his Gorton Street home on the East Side of Providence around 1:50 p.m. without speaking to reporters. Shortly before, FBI agents had carted away a large number of boxes and other materials marked “evidence.” Frank Anzeveno, Fox’s powerful chief of staff, later visited the speaker’s home for about a half-hour but said little to reporters.
There has been no indication so far that Fox – who, as speaker, is often called the most powerful politician in Rhode Island – is the target of the investigation. Albin Moser, who has served as Fox’s personal lawyer in other matters, told WPRI.com he had no comment on Friday’s developments.
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Nevertheless, the news sent shockwaves through Rhode Island politics.
State Rep. John Lombardi, D-Providence, quickly called on Fox to resign. “They raided his office. They raided his house. He’s got to step aside,” Lombardi told WPRI.com. “He’s got to show some leadership.”
House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, organized what he described as an “informal” caucus of House Democrats for 5:30 p.m. to discuss the day’s events. Mattiello – Fox’s top lieutenant – emphasized that unless Fox resigns, his current two-year term won’t be over until the end of this year. But he said he’s confident he’d have the votes to become speaker if the job becomes open.
State Rep. Scott Slater, D-Providence, told WPRI.com about 28 of the House’s 69 Democratic lawmakers were at the caucus.
Yet it was clear that others were not falling in behind Mattiello. State Rep. Michael Marcello, D-Scituate, told WPRI.com he was not planning to attend Mattiello’s gathering.
“There is a lot of discussion going on, a lot of jockeying, and I will say in my estimation there are no frontrunners” to succeed Fox as speaker, Marcello said, adding that he’d be willing to seek the job if there was support for him.
At the State House, Fox spokesman Larry Berman told WPRI.com officers arrived at the speaker’s office shortly before 10 a.m. Friday and asked him to leave; Fox wasn’t in the office at the time. Berman wasn’t allowed back into the office until shortly before 4 p.m., and at that point said he still hadn’t talked to the speaker.
State police officers blocked the door to Fox’s office for roughly six hours. The scene was quickly flooded with news reporters, as uniformed and non-uniformed individuals walked in and out without speaking to the media, some carrying boxes and bags. A cart was rolled in around 1:45 p.m.
Fox is a lawyer by profession. No police activity was apparent at his Dorrance Street law office around 11:45 a.m.
Fox, a 52-year-old Democrat, first won election to the General Assembly in 1992, and represents House District 4 on the East Side. He succeeded William Murphy as speaker in February 2010, and had indicated he plans to seek re-election this fall and another term as speaker next year.
Fox recently paid a $1,500 fine to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission for failing to disclose the income he earned from legal work he performed for the quasi-public Providence Economic Development Partnership, which was subpoenaed for records by the FBI just last week.
Fox has also been criticized for his involvement in pushing through the 38 Studios deal. However, Neronha disclosed in an interview on WPRI 12′s Newsmakers late last month that the U.S. attorney’s office had no active investigations regarding 38 Studios in progress.
Neronha said his office had reviewed in 2012 whether the 38 Studios deal and its aftermath led to any federal laws being broken, and had determined that they hadn’t been.
“I think to the extent that any crimes were committed that the state authorities are perfectly capable of handling them,” he said. “That’s often the decision-making process that we go through.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who is in Montana for meetings of the Democratic Governors Association, said the governor “does not comment on ongoing investigations.” Chafee has been briefed on the situation and continues to receive updates from R.I. State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell, she said.
The sight of FBI agents carting boxes marked “evidence” from the office brought back grim memories of Rhode Island’s long struggles with political corruption, from the various lawmakers who’ve been incarcerated in recent years to the convicted former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci to a muckraking journalist’s 1905 description of Rhode Island as “a state for sale.”
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican candidate for governor, called on Fox to resign from the speakership until the investigation is over. “It would be impossible for him to govern while being investigated by the FBI, the IRS, the U.S. attorney and the Rhode Island State Police,” Fung said in a statement.
“This situation shines light on the fact that too much power rests in the speakership,” the mayor added. “This is just one example of why it is necessary for Rhode Island to hold a constitutional convention and put more power into the hands of the governor and the citizens of Rhode Island.”
Ken Block, Fung’s opponent, called it “a sad day.”
“The events of today serve as a strong reminder that the next governor must reform Rhode Island’s system of government and end the culture of back-office dealmaking and one-party rule,” Block said in a statement. “Rhode Islanders deserve politicians focused on doing the right thing, not worrying about personal gain or the next election.”
None of the three Democrats running for governor – Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and political newcomer Clay Pell – had issued statements about the Fox situation by late afternoon. Taveras formerly had a law office in the same building as Fox’s, while Raimondo has worked closely with him on legislation.
House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, told WPRI.com he learned about what took place Friday on Twitter and knew nothing beyond what’s been publicly reported. “It’s not a good thing for the state,” Newberry said. “I’m certainly not happy, but I can’t comment about it because it appears to be a federal investigation.”
Jared Pliner and Marilyn Schairer contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci was incarcerated twice; while Cianci resigned as mayor twice due to legal troubles, he was only jailed once.