Prov licensing board chair: Ethics panel is ‘being used to entrap me’

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The chairwoman of the Providence Board of Licenses lashed out Wednesday against the state Ethics Commission’s decision to move forward with a complaint that accused her of receiving a no-bid contract from the city while she was also leading the board.

Johanna Harris, who has served since last year as chairwoman of the powerful board that processes thousands of entertainment and liquor licenses annually, said both she and the city of Providence did not believe a $200-per-hour contract to provide employee training needed to go out to bid because the matter was related to an emergency situation happening in the city.

“The Ethics Commission is being used to entrap me,” Harris told WPRI.com. She said she had no way of knowing that the contract could violate the code of ethics because she had only served as chairperson of the licensing board for six weeks when the city asked her to provide employee training.

The complaint was filed by attorney Peter Petrarca, a former state representative who has represented several nightclubs that have had their liquor licenses revoked by the licensing board since Harris took over. He has shouted at her in public at several meetings, including the high-profile hearing to close the $3 Bar on Atwells Ave.

Petrarca filed the complaint on Aug. 21, charging that Harris had violated a provision in the code of ethics that prohibits officers or officials from “entering into a contract with any state or municipal agency unless the contract has been awarded through an open and public process.”

The commission found “probable cause” for the complaint and will now “schedule an adjudication in open session,” according to Jason Grammitt, an attorney for the panel. Grammitt said the adjudication process functions similarly to a trial, with the commission reviewing evidence and arguments from both sides.

The two sides also have the option to enter into settlement negotiations, Grammitt said.

Harris, who worked as a corporate attorney for 40 years, said she agreed to provide employee training that was related to a sexual harassment incident in the city. She was paid $3,400 for 17 hours of working, including six coaching sessions.

Harris said city officials told the commission they didn’t believe the contract was required to be put out to bid.

“How could I have possibly known that this was supposed to be a bidding contract?” she said.

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

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