Panel: Providence licensing board member did not violate code of ethics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A member of the Providence Board of Licenses did not willfully violate the state code of ethics by entering into a no-bid contract with the Taveras administration last year.

The R.I. Ethics Commission on Tuesday dismissed a complaint filed against Johanna Harris charging that she 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.”

“To find a violation of the code of ethics, the commission must show that the conduct under scrutiny was ‘knowing and willful,’” Harris said in a statement. “Ruling that my acceptance of the no-bid contract was not a knowing and willful violation of the code, the commission noted that I had voluntarily reported my contract twice to the commission.”

The complaint was filed by attorney Peter Petrarca, a former state representative who regularly represents bars and nightclubs accused of wrongdoing in front of the licensing board. Petrarca clashed with Harris over several actions she took while leading the panel, including a decision to close the $3 Bar on Atwells Ave. last year.

After Petrarca filed the ethics complaint against Harris, he charged that she should recuse herself from any matter involving his clients. She refused and Petrarca filed a lawsuit against her in Superior Court. The case was dismissed on March 31.

Harris has acknowledged that the city awarded her a $200-per-hour contract to provide training to a “senior-level” city employee accused of sexual harassment in March 2014, shortly after she joined the board and was voted its chair. (She no longer serves as chair of the board, but remains a member.)

She maintains that she had no way of knowing she was violating the code of ethics because she had only been chairwoman of the licensing board for several weeks. She maintains that she received “no training on ethics” from the city.

As part of the Ethics Commission’s decision, it noted that Harris will not enter into any state municipal agency in Rhode Island for the rest of her tenure on the licensing board unless the contract is put out to bid.

Harris is still requesting that the city reimburse her for $17,000 in legal fees she accrued from defending herself against the complaint. That matter has not yet been resolved, according to Councilman Sam Zurier, who chairs the council Claims Committee.

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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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