PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo came under sharp criticism Thursday for giving a newly retired state lawmaker a job in her administration despite strict limits on so-called “revolving-door” hirings.
Former Rep. Don Lally Jr. surprised political observers in March when he announced his resignation just months after running unopposed for re-election. Lally, D-Narragansett, said at the time he was stepping aside to spend more time with his family and at his law practice.
On Thursday, however, Lally’s hometown newspaper – the South County Independent – reported that the ex-lawmaker had already landed a new job as a member of Raimondo’s staff who was then “loaned” to the R.I. Department of Business Regulation as a liaison to businesses.
Raimondo’s office confirmed Thursday that Lally was hired July 7 as a small business liaison at an annual salary of $87,057. Officials said Lally “is tasked with coordinating interagency efforts to make it easier to do business in Rhode Island.”
The hiring surprised John Marion of good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, who said it was not clear to him how Lally could be hired legally in light of the state’s “revolving-door” law, which in most cases blocks lawmakers from quickly taking a state job.
Marion cited the ethics commission’s Regulation 36-14-5007 – “Prohibition on State Employment” – which states:
No member of the General Assembly shall seek or accept state employment, not held at the time of the member’s election, while serving in the General Assembly and for a period of one (1) year after leaving legislative office. For purposes of this regulation, “employment” shall include service as defined in R.I. Gen Laws § 36-14-2(4) and shall also include service as an independent contractor or consultant to the state or any state agency, whether as an individual or a principal of an entity performing such service.
Marion noted a number of other examples in recent years of prominent politicians and political appointees – including Steven Costantino, Richard Licht and Brian Stern – who sought advisory opinions from the R.I. Ethics Commission in advance to ensure they could accept positions without violating the law. He called that the “proper way” to ensure compliance.
“This has been a controversial area of law for a long time,” Marion said.
Jason Gramitt, a staff attorney at the ethics commission, confirmed that neither Lally nor the governor’s office sought an advisory opinion from the commission to determine whether Lally could accept the job without violating revolving-door rules.
“As a representative of the body charged with investigating alleged violations of the Code of Ethics, I can’t at this time comment or opine as to whether the hiring violated the Code,” Gramitt said in an email.
Raimondo defended the hiring to reporters on Thursday, saying her aides believed Lally’s hiring was legal because his official position is on her staff. “It’s our view of the situation that it’s pretty clearly within the rules,” she said.
Raimondo insisted there was no quid pro quo involved in the Lally appointment. “He’s the guy we chose to do the job,” she said. “And we’re going to hold him accountable, just like everybody else.”
Marie Aberger, her spokeswoman, added in an email: “Don Lally’s experience and understanding of how government works is an asset to helping businesses coordinate regulatory submissions and navigate through the processes across various state departments.” Aberger said Lally’s job was not posted, “which is generally the case for jobs within the governor’s office.”
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello confirmed that he encouraged the governor to hire Lally, who rose to become a member of House Democratic leadership during his quarter-century on Smith Hill.
“I gave Don Lally a positive recommendation based on his years of working with him in the House,” Mattiello told WPRI.com in a statement. “I told her he is a very talented individual with a unique skill set of having served in the legislature for 26 years and that he would be a very valuable asset to whatever role he would fulfill on her staff.”
Mattiello also defended Raimondo’s decision to hire his former colleague.
“It is my understanding that Don Lally is working in a senior advisory position on the governor’s staff, which is appropriate under the revolving door law,” he said, adding that the new position would help improve Rhode Island’s business climate.
Not everyone agreed. Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell blasted Lally’s hiring Thursday, saying his assignment as a “loan” to DBR “sounds like an obvious attempt to circumvent the revolving door law.”
“It appears that we are going back to the good old days with old boy network politics under Raimondo,” Bell said in a statement. “You can’t move Rhode Island forward by going backward on ethics.”
Bell also speculated that the new job could allow Lally to collect a bigger state pension, since he first joined the General Assembly in 1989, when lawmakers could still collect pension credits. They became ineligible for pension credit in 1994.