Undercover probe finds Providence lawmaker misleading either voters or Ethics Commission

Docs, ex-tenants suggest Rep. Carnevale may not live in the district he represents

Rep. John Carnevale wrapped his face while undercover surveillance cameras were rolling.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A state lawmaker who holds a plum post on the General Assembly’s most powerful committee is misleading either the voters in his district or the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, a Target 12 investigation has discovered.

State Rep. John Carnevale, a 54-year-old Democrat, has represented House District 13 since 2009 and currently serves as vice chairman of the budget-writing House Finance Committee. He describes his residence as 150 Barbara St. in Providence, a two-family home in District 13 he co-owns with two other members of his family.

But months of undercover surveillance by Target 12 found Carnevale is frequently at a property at 895 Greenville Ave. in Johnston, which tax records show he bought in 2007 for $307,000. That home lies in District 44, not Carnevale’s own District 13. And one recent day when Carnevale appeared to spot our cameras rolling on him there, he walked out of sight and returned with his face wrapped in a T-shirt, seemingly to avoid being seen on tape.

Rep. Carnevale, right, refuses to answer questions as he walks into the State House.
Rep. Carnevale, right, refused to answer questions as he walked into the State House.

Confronted about Target 12’s findings last week, Carnevale refused to answer any questions as he hurried into the State House. “You have no story here,” he said, repeating a version of the phrase twice more before Capitol Police stopped Target 12 from following him into the building through its basement entrance.

A Target 12 review of Carnevale’s nine years of annual financial statements to the Ethics Commission shows he has never disclosed the Johnston property on the filings, even though the commission requires elected officials to list any real estate they own, under penalty of perjury.

The commission’s one exception to the disclosure requirement is for “real estate that is used exclusively as your principal residence” – but if the Johnston property fits that exception for Carnevale, it would mean he does not actually live in the district he represents.

And that’s not the end of the paper trail.

895 Greenville Ave Johnston
895 Greenville Ave. in Johnston.

On April 23, 2007, Carnevale signed a mortgage document with his bank to finance his purchase of the Johnston property. It explicitly stated that Carnevale “agrees to occupy the property as [his] principal residence within sixty days,” according to a copy of the document Target 12 obtained from town land records.

The mortgage provision – called a borrower occupancy covenant – was signed more than a year before Carnevale filed with the Providence Board of Canvassers to run for the District 13 seat as a resident of 150 Barbara St. On his declaration of candidacy form, Carnevale asserted that he had been a resident of Providence for his entire life.

Tax records show Carnevale owns four vehicles and a motorcycle, all registered at 150 Barbara St., which is where he pays his motor-vehicle taxes. But none of Carnevale’s vehicles were ever seen at 150 Barbara St. while Target 12 was conducting undercover surveillance there, whereas three of them were seen at the Johnston property. That includes the vehicle Carnevale regularly drives to the State House, which was spotted parked at the Johnston property as late as midnight.

150 Barbara St. in Providence.
150 Barbara St. in Providence.

Two former tenants at 150 Barbara St. told Target 12 they were instructed to say Carnevale lived at the property if anyone asked – even though, according to them, he did not. The tenants, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, said they made out their rent checks to Carnevale and saved any mail he received there so he could pick it up, which happened roughly once a week.

“I knew he lived somewhere in Johnston. He mentioned it briefly,” one of the former tenants recalled. “I didn’t get into it. He was just some guy who was our landlord.”

At one point, the former tenant said, a neighbor reminded him that he should say Carnevale lived there if anyone asked, and explained that the heads-up was necessary because “some camera crews might be swinging by.”

“He had a phone in the basement to just handle voicemail,” the former tenant recalled. “There was a little nook [in the basement] that was just large enough for a cot and it had a sheet across the opening there. There were no personal effects. There was just a phone. But that area never got used.”

A woman who answered the door several weeks ago at 150 Barbara St. told Target 12 Carnevale did not live there. However, shortly after the incident when Carnevale appeared to spot the undercover camera, a tenant at the Providence property insisted to Target 12 that the lawmaker does in fact live at that address.

City records show Carnevale receives a tax break on the Providence property by qualifying for Providence’s reduced owner-occupied tax rate, which requires the owner to live in the property. A city official in Johnston confirmed he does not take advantage of a homestead exemption there.

Carnevale has been registered to vote at 150 Barbara St. since 1980, city records show. State law stipulates that a “person’s residence for voting purposes is his or her fixed and established domicile,” and makes false voter registration a felony offense. The law also makes it a felony to cast a ballot when a voter “knows or should know that he or she is not qualified to vote.”

State law stipulates that a “person’s residence for voting purposes is his or her fixed and established domicile,” and makes false voter registration a felony offense.

Carnevale has held the vice-chair position on the powerful House Finance Committee since March 2014, when Nicholas Mattiello ascended to the speakership and appointed new committee leaders after the sudden resignation of Gordon Fox. Carnevale served for most of that time under Chairman Ray Gallison, until Gallison abruptly resigned last month amid a law-enforcement probe. Mattiello then appointed Rep. Marvin Abney to replace Gallison rather than allow Carnevale to take the chairmanship.

The serious questions about Carnevale come as state lawmakers are under intense scrutiny in the wake of Gallison’s resignation, which focused new attention on the failure of many of them to fill out their Ethics Commission financial statements accurately and completely.

Jason Gramitt, staff attorney for the Ethics Commission, declined to comment on Target 12’s Carnevale investigation. But in general, he said that “the yearly financial disclosure statement is designed to provide insight into a public official’s holdings and financial interests, which allows the public to judge for itself whether a public servant may have a personal interest that is in conflict with his or her official decision-making in the public interest.”

As Target 12 has previously reported, about one in four lawmakers have been forced to amend their ethics filings since Gallison resigned. Among them were state Sen. Jamie Doyle, who acknowledged undisclosed personal debts after they were discovered by Target 12, and Rep. Anastasia Williams, who twice in recent years failed to list her day job on her form.

The problems have been so widespread that earlier this month the Ethics Commission voted to allow a brief grace period during which lawmakers can correct their filings without penalty. “Certainly by the sheer volume of people who filed amendments in the last couple of weeks, we know they weren’t paying attention to what they put on the forms,” John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, told Target 12.

“They are not a nuisance,” Marion continued. “The people of Rhode Island said in the constitution in 1986 they want conflict-of-interest forms filled out. And so they created an Ethics Commission with the charge of putting out these forms and making people fill them out. So they’re critically important documents to holding people accountable, asking the sorts of questions that you ask every day.”

Carnevale, now in his fourth two-year term as a state representative, ran unopposed for re-election in the last two elections. Politics runs in his family: he is the brother of the late former Rep. Anthony Carnevale, who served six terms in the 1970s and 1980s before being named a Superior Court magistrate.

Carnevale was a sergeant in the Providence Police Department until his retirement in 2007. He collects a tax-free accidental disability pension from the city that was worth $3,918 a month as of last year, according to municipal records.

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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