PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A Rhode Island Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday that Secretary of State Ralph Mollis’s office abused the judiciary for political reasons during its investigation of alleged 38 Studios lobbying violations by Michael Corso.
In his decision, Superior Court Associate Justice Daniel Procaccini wrote that “the Court offers its strongest possible rebuke to Secretary Mollis for the part he played in the misuse of this Court.”
The judge found that Mollis and Welch violated judicial rules “when they filed a Petition that was improper and legally deficient in a poorly orchestrated attempt to involve this Court in their effort to zealously pursue Mr. Corso’s possible unauthorized lobbying.”
As a punishment, Procaccini ordered Mollis’s lawyer, Mark Welch, “to pay the reasonable attorney’s fees and costs incurred by Corso with respect to the petition.” He said that amount hasn’t been determined yet. The judge said he was ordering Welch to pay the penalty instead of Mollis because “ultimate responsibility for filing the Petition rests with [Mollis’s] legal counsel.”
In a statement, Mollis said he was “very disappointed in this decision.”
“It both mischaracterizes my attorney’s actions, and rewards someone who fought to keep 38 Studios lobbying activities secret from the people of Rhode Island,” he said. “Our actions were never politically motivated, but were based on sound legal basis. If we wanted to act politically, we would have had one hearing, asked for the maximum fine and benefitted politically. Instead, we acted legally, in the best Interests of the people of Rhode Island.”
Anthony Traini, a lawyer for Corso, applauded the judge’s decision and said in an email, “Mollis’ continued defense of his and his attorney’s actions is as despicable as their original conduct.”
“Mollis and his lawyer made a desperate and illegal political move during the primary campaign and they got caught by a Judge who will not tolerate having the Court prostituted or politicized,” Traini said. “It’s that simple. He should consider himself lucky that all he lost was an election. He is a complete disgrace to the State of Rhode Island and the public is well rid of him.”
The complex chain of events began in May when a Target 12 investigation caused Mollis to launch an examination of whether Corso, a Providence attorney, lobbied on behalf of Curt Schilling’s video-game company without registering. He eventually determined that Corso had indeed failed to comply with lobbying rules.
In his decision, Judge Procaccini noted that “Secretary Mollis did not begin any type of proceeding against Mr. Corso until confronted by a member of the media about his failure to look into whether or not Mr. Corso had properly registered as a lobbyist.”
Wednesday’s court ruling stemmed from an action Mollis’s office took as part of the investigation on July 25, when Welch filed a Superior Court petition to allow the secretary of state’s office to conduct depositions of those involved; they backtracked a month later and withdrew the petition under heavy criticism from Corso’s attorney.
“This was a calculated and nefarious attempt to subvert and abuse the process of the Superior Court, to interfere with and obstruct the operation of the judicial system, for the purpose of political gain, carried out by a politically experienced public official, who controlled his own prosecutorial apparatus, in league with a member of the bar who had served as his acolyte for years,” Corso’s attorney wrote in a filing.
Mollis’s attorneys denied that the petition was filed in bad faith, saying they were trying to find creative ways to enforce the lobbying regulations.
Mollis was running in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor at the time, and Judge Procaccini said in Wednesday’s ruling he was “convinced” that the petition was filed “to make it appear to the public that Secretary Mollis was aggressively addressing Mr. Corso’s involvement in 38 Studios only to abandon and dismiss it as soon as the possibility of sanctions for such an utterly inappropriate filing were suggested.”
Mollis lost the primary to Dan McKee, who went on to win the Nov. 4 election.
Secretary of State-elect Nellie Gorbea, a Democrat, will succeed Mollis in January. She has said she will seek to beef up Rhode Island’s lobbying rules when she takes over. Mollis said Wednesday he expects to finish his various 38 Studios lobbying inquiries “to a close before the end of the year.”