PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Documents released by the Rhode Island State Police are shedding unprecedented light on background checks conducted on potential candidates for a state judgeship, including a well-connected former lawmaker.
The roughly 80 pages detail the investigative work done by state police detectives on five district court hopefuls and two others who are up for the position of family court chief.
Some of the material is redacted. A lawyer for the state police said that material was withheld due to an “expectation of privacy.”
The Providence Journal reported Wednesday on the documents, which were later obtained by Target 12 through a public records request.
State police officials said they applied the balancing test in the state’s Access to Public Records Act and determined that the public’s right to know outweighed privacy concerns when it came to the judicial reviews. The balancing test was inserted into the law by the General Assembly in 2012.
John Marion, executive director of good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, said he was surprised when he learned that the reports had been released.
“Of all the records that I thought this change in the law – the so-called balancing test – would reveal, this wouldn’t necessarily be at the top of the list,” Marion said. “This is the first significant win for transparency when it comes to the Judicial Nominating Commission.”
The records are used by the nine-member commission in considering potential candidates for a judgeship before forwarding names to the governor’s office.
“You’re talking about people applying for a job on the bench where they are going to have lifetime tenure,” Marion said. “We give judges greater independence than any state in the nation and yet we know very little about the information they have to submit for those jobs.”
“These background checks are really important documents that have to be considered by the panel that screens them,” he added.
Five names for the district court vacancy were forwarded to the governor last June. They are former state Rep. Timothy Williamson, D-West Warwick; defense attorney Thomas Briody; Traffic Tribunal Judge Alan Goulart; Coastal Resources Management Council hearing officer Brian Goldman; and attorney Paul Ragosta.
Williamson’s file was almost double the size of any of the other candidates. It included information on two arrests from the 1980s, including a misdemeanor larceny charge in Providence and a “breach of peace” charge in Connecticut. He was given a one-year without a finding dispensation by a judge at the time.
In an interview with a state police detective, Williamson said his 1985 Providence arrest came after he was “at a Halloween party and heavily intoxicated.”
He told the detective he went to a hot dog stand and realized he had no money on him; when he returned he was told to go to the back of the line.
“Mr. Williamson stated he grabbed the vendor’s tip cup and threw it away, at which point he was detained by employees … awaiting the arrival of Providence Police,” the detective wrote.
The 1983 Connecticut charge came when Williamson and another man were “horsing around” and fought over who was going to ride in the front seat of a car while in the parking lot of a Burger King.
Williamson had a list of contacts with his hometown police department in West Warwick, some as a suspect and other times as a complainant. The notations involved primarily motor vehicle incidents. He was also cited for motor vehicle violations in Coventry.
The state police also listed a 2009 complaint by a West Warwick resident who felt threatened by Williamson, but the former lawmaker was never charged.
Williamson is a well-connected figure with strong ties to House Democratic leadership. Marion said historically judicial appointments have been used for political horse-trading at the State House.
“This is used as a way for governors to get some leverage with the Assembly, because they don’t have a lot of institutional power to get what they want through the Assembly,” Marion said.
State police investigators interviewed neighbors of the judicial candidates, verified their educations, checked their personal finances and determined if they had any contact with area casinos.
Marie Aberger, a spokesperson for Gov. Gina Raimondo, would not provide a timeline as to when she would make a decision on the district court vacancy.
“It’s going to be a while,” she said. “She will do interviews [with the candidates], which she hasn’t started yet.”
Aberger said the governor has prioritized improving the economy, infrastructure and schools over picking judges.