PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Former House Speaker Gordon Fox pleaded guilty Tuesday to accepting a bribe and misusing his campaign funds, nearly a year after dramatic raids on his home and office forced his resignation.
Fox, 53, was charged with bribery, wire fraud and filing a false tax return, all following an 18-month investigation by a federal grand jury, according to court documents unsealed Tuesday. He reached a plea deal in exchange for a three-year prison sentence.
Fox entered his guilty plea during a noontime court appearance and was released on personal recognizance. He will be sentenced June 11.
The former speaker was repeatedly emotional during the court proceedings at the Federal Building in Providence. He choked up when the judge asked him whether the allegations are true, and did so again when she said he would likely lose his law license. He again became emotional when reporters asked him outside court whether he was remorseful.
“Absolutely, absolutely – that goes without question,” Fox said. He declined to comment further but acknowledged, “I don’t want to be callous to any of the people of Rhode Island, including any donors, including the people close to me that looked up to me, family – it’s tough.”
Fox was required to surrender his passport and barred from traveling outside Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire until then. U.S. District Judge Mary Lisi still has to accept the plea agreement.
The Target 12 Investigators first broke the news of the charges against Fox early Tuesday. Fox himself confirmed the court appearance in a brief interview with Target 12 outside his home Tuesday morning as he left for court with one of his attorneys, Albin Moser. He is also being represented by his predecessor as House speaker, William Murphy, who is now a lawyer in private practice.
Fox said he accepted $52,500 in bribes from the owners of Shark Bar and Grille on Thayer Street in exchange for helping them obtain a liquor license in 2008 while he was vice-chairman of the powerful Providence Board of Licenses; neighbors opposed the license request.
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Prosecutors said the payment from Shark’s owners to Fox was discovered after documents were obtained in a separate examination of his campaign finances. While “following up in that sea of transactions, we found the bribe,” U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha said at a midmorning news conference. The entire case began as a “result of another investigation that I can’t identify,” he said.
Joe Dalambo, a former co-owner of Shark, confirmed that he has spoken with law enforcement but declined to comment further when reached by Target 12 on Tuesday.
Ray Hugh, Shark’s current co-owner, flatly denied the charges. “This is news to me,” Hugh told Target 12. Informed of the specific allegations against Fox, he said: “That’s not true at all.” He hung up when asked whether law enforcement had contacted him.
Neronha did not rule out bringing charges against those who paid Fox the bribe.
Fox, a Democrat, also admitted to taking approximately $108,000 from his campaign account between 2008 and 2014, illegally using the money on personal expenses – including purchases at Tiffany’s, Urban Outfitters and the Warwick Animal Hospital – then filing misleading reports with the R.I. Board of Elections. At the close of 2013, Fox reported $212,060 in his campaign account but actually had only $52,403 on hand, prosecutors said.
Fox filed false federal and state tax returns from 2008 to 2012 that did not reveal the spending, as well, the case found.
“This is a particularly pernicious type of fraud, and one that should concern all Rhode Islanders,” Neronha said. “Because when elected officials rely on campaign donors to maintain their personal lifestyle, there is a very real danger that they will feel a particularly strong sense of obligation to those donors – a sense of personal obligation that may cause them to act in a way more in the interest of those donors than in all Rhode Islanders.”
“This is precisely what Speaker Fox did,” he added, saying Fox “looted his campaign account repeatedly over a number of years to pay for plainly personal expenses.”
Fox started working as an assistant city solicitor in Providence in 1996 and was appointed to a coveted spot on the Board of Licenses in 2001 by former Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci. Licensing board members are paid $18,582 annually – the chairman makes $25,308 – and are eligible for pension credits each year.
Lawyers met with Judge Lisi behind closed doors Monday to discuss the Fox case, according to court records. One of her colleagues, U.S. District Judge Jack McConnell, has recused himself from the case; McConnell was a major Democratic Party donor before his appointment.
During the news conference, Neronha noted that his office has now prosecuted a House speaker, a deputy House speaker, a state senator, a mayor and three town councilmen since he became U.S. attorney in mid-2009.
“As Rhode Islanders, we need to lose our political corruption amnesia,” Neronha said. “In general I believe in rehabilitation and second chances. But I do not believe that those who have sworn to uphold the public trust and violated it, and been given the enormous opportunity to serve the public and abuse it, should ever be given that opportunity again.”
Attorney General Peter Kilmartin – who was the No. 3 House Democrat when Fox was the No. 2, and whose office assisted Neronha’s with the investigation – saw a silver lining in the charges.
“We continue to follow the leads, follow the evidence, build the strong case, no matter where the evidence takes us, no matter how high the office, no matter how powerful the individual,” Kilmartin said. “That is something Rhode Islanders can trust in, and that is what occurred in this case.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office said investigators issued more than 200 subpoenas and examined “more than 36,000 bank, government, personal and campaign records belonging to former Speaker Fox” over the course of the probe.
Congressman David Cicilline, who has been friends with Fox for years, described the former speaker’s crimes as “a stunning betrayal of the public trust.” He added: “As a colleague and friend I am incredibly shocked and deeply disappointed.”
Gov. Gina Raimondo, who worked closely with Fox when she was treasurer and supported his re-election in 2012, issued a statement expressing disappointment in the outcome of the investigation.
“This is a sad day for Rhode Island; this situation is unacceptable,” she said. “These events are deeply troubling, and we owe it to the citizens of Rhode Island to do better. Elected officials must always uphold the highest ethical standards – people deserve honest government.”
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who succeeded Fox, released a similar statement late Tuesday morning: “There is no place for public corruption and I am extremely disappointed to learn about the charges against former Speaker Fox. … While this closes a very sad chapter, the House will continue to move forward and focus on the needs of the state.”
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who took office in January, said he was “particularly disappointed” to learn that Fox had apparently used his post on the city’s licensing board to obtain bribes. “My administration is investigating whether the license can be legally revoked,” Elorza said in a statement.
Common Cause Rhode Island, a good-government group, called on the General Assembly to respond to the Fox charges by requiring routine audit of campaign-finance reports and calling a vote on whether the Rhode Island Ethics Commission should have full jurisdiction over state lawmakers.
The chain of events that culminated in Tuesday’s charges kicked off publicly last March 21, when Rhode Island State Police, FBI and IRS agents conducted dramatic daylight raids on Fox’s home and State House office. He announced his resignation as speaker a day later and did not seek re-election in November.
Until Tuesday it remained unknown what led investigators to order the raids, which upended Rhode Island politics and triggered the downfall of a man widely viewed as the state’s most powerful politician. No information had been officially released up to now, and Fox had not even been identified as a target of any probe.
Following the raids, however, it quickly emerged that Fox’s campaign finances were under scrutiny.
Last April, Target 12 reported that investigators had sought the former speaker’s campaign-finance records from the R.I. Board of Elections on the same day of the raids. At the time, an official said the board would not “disclose the nature or substance of any communications with law enforcement officials.”
Target 12 also reported that on the morning of the raids investigators visited the East Providence home of Fox’s longtime executive assistant, Ruth Desmarais, to seek campaign-finance documents. Desmarais declined to comment at the time on what happened except to tell Target 12 they had not come with a search warrant for her home.
Neronha said the nature of the case made it take a long time.
“This was not a case where we had an informant and someone wore a wire and it was fairly quickly put together,” he said. “This was a really difficult, get into the documents, get into the accounts, and really build it, kind of case.”
Even before the outcome of the case was known, though, Fox’s long political career in Rhode Island had already come to an end. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat who’d been his majority leader, quickly put together the votes last March to succeed him and has since won widespread early praise for his focus on jobs and the economy.
Fox, who was first elected in 1992, held a series of increasingly influential leadership posts in the House over the final 14 years of his legislative career. Before serving as speaker from 2010 to 2014, he was majority leader from 2002 to 2010 and House Finance Committee chairman in 2001 and 2002.
Those powerful jobs made Fox a prolific fundraiser, raking in tens of thousands of dollars a year for his campaign account from supporters, lobbyists, PACs and others. He raised nearly $550,000 between the start of 2010, the year he became speaker, and the end of 2013, according to a WPRI.com review of his Board of Elections filings.
Fox’s signature accomplishment as speaker was likely the 2013 legalization of same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, which was particularly important to him as the state’s first gay speaker; he married his own longtime partner that fall. Fox also played a crucial role in passing the state’s 2011 pension overhaul and its school-funding formula.
Fox sold his home on the East Side of Providence earlier this year and moved to East Providence.