Fox can keep $200K campaign account when he leaves office

House Speaker Gordon Fox speaks to reporters (WPRI 12 photo)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When former R.I. House Speaker Gordon Fox leaves office later this year, it is unclear how he’ll manage a personal campaign account that currently contains more than $200,000.

State law allows former elected officials and candidates to continue to use campaign funds for political purposes, donations to charity and in some cases, legal fees until the account is drawn down and dissolved, according to Richard Thornton, the R.I. Board of Elections’ director of campaign finance.

In other words, the embattled Fox can utilize his campaign account in the same way whether he is representing House District 4 or not. State law does not allow elected officials or candidates to use their campaign money for personal reasons, Thornton said.

Fox ended 2013 with $202,060 in his account, according to a WPRI.com review of campaign finance records. He suddenly stepped down from his powerful leadership and announced he wouldn’t seek re-election Saturday, a day after state and federal investigators executed two search warrants that targeted his East Side home and State House office.

Law enforcement officials had no new details on the status of the investigation Monday and Fox has not been charged, but Thornton said the former speaker could use campaign funds for legal fees “if he is defending himself on a charge as an elected official.”

Thornton cited a 2010 advisory opinion given by the Board of Elections that allowed former state Sen. William Irons to reimburse himself for legal fees related to an ethics complaint. A review of Irons’ inactive campaign account shows he paid himself $25,387 in May 2010.

Former House Speaker William Murphy, who left office in 2010, maintained a tiny balance in his campaign war chest for several months before dissolving the account in August 2011, according to filings with the Board of Elections.

It is not uncommon for politicians to keep their campaign accounts active after leaving office.

Former Attorney General Patrick Lynch left office in January 2011, but still reported a balance of $309,420 at the end of 2013. He has reported spending $38,743 since leaving office. Former House Majority Leader George Caruolo hasn’t appeared on a ballot since 1996, but he has $122,556 in his account.

William Fischer, who prepared Fox’s resignation statement Saturday, did not respond to a request for comment Monday. Providence attorney Albin Moser confirmed Monday that he is representing Fox.

Aside from his personal campaign account, Fox controlled more than $88,000 in two political action committees (PACs) set up by House leadership. The next speaker will likely inherit control over those funds.

Cranston Democrat Nicholas Mattiello has said he has secured the support of the majority of the House’s 75 members to succeed Fox as speaker and a vote is likely to take place Tuesday. Rep. Michael Marcello, D-Scituate, is also attempting to win support for the post.

Leadership PACs are significant because they allow the speaker to double or triple what they can otherwise raise through their personal account and “use those funds to maintain their control on power by rewarding and protecting their supporters,” according to John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.

“There’s a lot of talk about what’s being promised over the weekend,” Marion told WPRI.com. “It’s not just legislation.”

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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