Quest to put teeth in RI public corruption law fails again

AP Photo/Steven Senne

PROVIDENCE, RI (WPRI)  — Gordon Fox is the ninth Rhode Island elected official sent to prison over the past five years, and all but two were prosecuted under the federal system.

The recent Fox investigation involved both state and federal law enforcement, but Attorney General Peter Kilmartin acknowledges there’s a significant difference in the two systems.

“The federal government has more tools in their prosecutorial tool box,” Kilmartin said. “But we’ve tried to change that.”

Every year since 2011, Kilmartin has proposed a series of bills to add those tools to state law, but they’re still not on the books.

One proposed measure would create a new chapter that would apply to public officials in the law titled Crimes Against Public Trust. That would include a charge for “bribery in official and political matters” and potentially would put politicians away for something called “theft of honest services.”

If you steal your honest services as an elected official in government you can be held accountable in federal court,” Kilmartin said. “We do not have that in the state system.”

Another proposed measure would add a section to the state’s Pay to Play law to restrict political contributions by state vendors who financially benefit from the state contracts. The third measure would create a “public corruption unit” within the Attorney General’s office, empowered to investigate and prosecute abuses of the public trust.

Kilmartin first pitched the bills one year after Gordon Fox took over as Speaker of The House. They’ve been stuck in committee ever since and it’s no different this year. Spokesmen for the Senate President and House Speaker said the bills will not be moving forward yet.

Timeline: Recent political scandals in Rhode Island >>
Timeline: Recent political scandals in Rhode Island »

“On the Senate side, those three bills were all heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee and held for further study,” Senate President spokesman Greg Pare said. “No further action has been scheduled at this point.”

We heard the same from House Speaker spokesman Larry Berman.

“All these bills are being held for further study in the House Judiciary Committee and are not ready for passage by the committee this year,” Berman said.

Kilmartin has no plans to let up on pushing for passage but does argue that in the Fox investigation, while he was prosecuted in Federal Court, it was the state’s longer statute of limitations for bribery that convinced him to cut a plea agreement.

“It was because we could hold the Damocles sword of the state prosecution over Mr. Fox’s head, that he willingly waived the statute of limitations in federal court,” Kilmartin said.

Fox is the seventh member of the General Assembly sent to prison in the past ten years.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

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