Corso appeals 38 Studios lobby violation decision with courts

Michael Corso, right, the Providence attorney who helped put together the 38 Studios deal, speaks outside his Providence law office in May 2014.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence attorney Michael Corso has filed a complaint against the secretary of state’s office asking a judge to overturn a hearing officer’s decision that Corso should have registered as a lobbyist for 38 Studios.

In the complaint filed on Friday, Corso’s attorney’s called the hearing process “unlawful” and “unconstitutional.”

“To the extent that the statutory scheme calls for a ‘show cause’ proceeding whereby Mr. Corso would have the burden to prove he did not violate said scheme, the statutes are unconstitutional,” Corso’s lawyers wrote in the filing.

Corso was subject to several hearings at the State House in July following a Target 12 report that revealed no one from Curt Schilling’s now-defunct video game company had registered to lobby the executive branch or the legislature. Target 12 also obtained a contract that showed the company pledged to pay Corso $300,000 to, among other duties, interact with government officials.

Then-Secretary of State Ralph Mollis selected attorney Louis DeSimone to preside over the process as an impartial hearing officer.

In November, DeSimone found Corso should have registered as a lobbyist. A month later Mollis adopted the decision, ordering Corso to retroactively register or face a $2,000 fine.

Friday’s filing also asked a judge to conduct an “independent review into the conduct of the hearing officer in connection with the administrative proceedings.”

“The hearing officer, who was hand selected by the Secretary to conduct these administrative proceedings, was biased in favor of the Secretary,” the filing states.

Corso’s attorneys, Michael Lepizzera and Anthony Traini, accuse DeSimone of inappropriate communications with Mollis outside the hearing. They cite a letter Mollis sent to DeSimone asking for more clarification on the decision and a response by DeSimone. Corso’s attorneys were not copied on those letters.

“Mr. Corso is aware of at least one ex parte communication and seeks to have the court determine if any other ex parte communications took place between the hearing office and Secretary Mollis,” according to the filing.

The complaint asked that Corso be reimbursed for legal fees and “all other relief this court deems just and appropriate.”

The case now falls into the lap of incoming Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who was sworn in Tuesday.

In a statement, Gorbea told Target 12 she will be conducting a “thorough review on 38 Studios and our lobbying laws before I make a decision on the appeal.”

“This is more about protecting Rhode Islanders and making sure this never happens again than it is about defending a fine,” Gorbea said in the statement.

Lepizzera said he would be willing to discuss dropping the demand for legal fees in this case if Gorbea agreed to drop the lobbying violation charge and any future charges against Corso.

Separately, Superior Court Associate Justice Daniel Procaccini has ordered Mollis’s lawyer Mark Welch to pay attorney’s fees to Corso for abusing the judiciary for political reasons during the lobby investigation.

In his decision 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.”

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.”

Lepizzera said Corso’s legal team has not yet submitted a bill to the secretary of state’s office.

A call to Mollis’s press secretary on Monday was not returned.

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @white_tim

WPRI.com reporter Ted Nesi contributed to this report.

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