PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A veteran lawmaker failed to inform state ethics officials that she led a nonprofit which has taken thousands of dollars in private donations and shares its name with an official legislative body, according to documents reviewed by WPRI.com.
In a 2015 filing with the secretary of state’s office, Rep. Anastasia Williams was listed as president of a private nonprofit she set up six years ago called the Black and Latino Caucus. Its name is nearly identical to that of the Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, the General Assembly’s official group for minority lawmakers, which Williams also leads.
Records show Williams, D-Providence, formed the Black and Latino Caucus as a Rhode Island nonprofit corporation in 2010, and the IRS went on to designate it as a public charity with 501(c)3 tax-exempt status. The nonprofit’s mailing address used to be listed as the State House in IRS filings, with Williams’ cell phone listed as its telephone number.
The R.I. Ethics Commission requires officials to list their positions on nonprofit boards when they fill out their annual personal financial disclosures, which are completed under penalty of perjury. But Williams did not mention her role as president of the Black and Latino Caucus nonprofit when she submitted her filing for 2015 earlier this year. It was the fourth year in a row she failed to list the group.
In an interview on Wednesday, Williams said she thought she’d listed the nonprofit on her 2015 disclosure form. Informed that she hadn’t, she said: “I don’t have a problem amending that on there.” Hours later she said she was in the process of belatedly disclosing her role with the group to the Ethics Commission, though that hadn’t happened yet as of Thursday morning.
‘Nothing to do with the General Assembly’
Williams insisted the two entities have been strictly separate since top House Democrats changed the chamber’s rules in 2013, forcing her to stop running the nonprofit out of the State House.
“This is entirely different from the Legislative Black and Latino Caucus,” Williams said of the nonprofit. “It has absolutely nothing to do with the General Assembly in any way, shape or form.”
Asked whether she was concerned that naming the nonprofit after the legislative caucus would raise eyebrows, Williams said: “That’s just an idea that someone may have, an opinion, and they’re entitled to their opinion. But you know, the bottom line is it is what it is, it has nothing to do with the General Assembly, and the name shouldn’t matter.”
Williams acknowledged that the Black and Latino Caucus nonprofit was based in the State House from its creation in 2010 to February 2013. That’s when House leaders made a major revision to the chamber’s rules with the addition of a new section governing legislative caucuses. The new rules stipulated: “No budget shall be appropriated for any Caucus nor shall any Caucus engage in the raising of funds nor in-kind donations to pay for any of its activities.”
Williams recalled being informed of the 2013 rules change when it was made, during the speakership of Gordon Fox, and said that after it happened, “we followed the rule and we went off the premises.”
“We had been pulled in and just talked about the change that had taken place. But we didn’t do any activities out of the General Assembly and raise money under the auspices of the General Assembly,” Williams said. “It’s not a Legislative Black and Latino Caucus entity. It wasn’t something that was being run out of the General Assembly.”
John Marion, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, said he still has questions about what happened. “It remains a mystery why the House rules were changed in 2013 to seemingly prohibit this caucus from raising money,” he said.
Williams at first suggested the nonprofit has raised between $9,000 and $12,000 since 2010, but IRS filings show it took in $14,000 just from mid-2011 to mid-2013. Whatever the case, Williams said, it hasn’t been “a substantial amount of money.”
The money has been used to provide between 40 and 50 scholarships of $500 to $1,000, according to Williams, which would put its minimum estimated revenue at $20,000. Scholarship applications are distributed in April and May to high schools, community organizations and individuals, she said.
Asked whether she would disclose the identities of those who donated the money, Williams demurred. “It’s an array of people – individuals and stuff – so I’m not sure they would want to, because some of them came through, like, the United Way – so, you know, anonymous entities, stuff like that,” she said.
Williams went on to say that some of the donations had come from foundations, “and therefore it’s been very private.”
“We are grateful to those who have contributed because the money has assisted, so therefore to give them – you know, to disclose who they all are would be an injustice of their generosity,” she said.
While the nonprofit’s IRS filings for 2012 and 2013 said its financial paperwork was in Williams’ control at the time, she now says that information was inaccurate. “It’s never been in my control,” she said. “It’s been in the control of an accountant. I have never been in control of any financial books.”
She added: “It probably was just verbiage that needed to go on the form. … I have not had any money handling.” She also said she didn’t receive any of the money in exchange for leading the group.
‘Lawmakers seem to consider it an afterthought’
This marks the second time in recent months Williams has had to amend her financial disclosure form. She previously did so after failing to list her day job with the city of Providence or her role as chair of the John Hope Settlement House, a nonprofit that received a six-figure General Assembly appropriation until problems with its finances made headlines in June.
Still, Williams maintained she takes the disclosure requirements seriously.
“It’s just a situation where, you know, people are heightened, people are concerned, people are angry,” she said. “But there’s no malice that has been done, intended, in any way. Everything is above board – there’s a question that can be asked and an answer given, and it’s all legit.”
Williams wasn’t the only lawmaker listed as being on the Black and Latino Caucus board in its 2015 filing with the secretary of state: also named was Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence. He also failed to disclose the position to the Ethics Commission.
Metts expressed surprise Thursday when asked about why he didn’t mention the nonprofit on his form, saying he thought the group “has been inactive for years.” He described the omission as “an oversight” and said the nonprofit was always “more run by community people … than the legislators themselves.”
Common Cause’s Marion expressed concern after learning that Williams and Metts had failed to disclose the nonprofit. He noted the Ethics Commission recently gave all lawmakers a chance to fix their financial disclosure forms without penalty after dozens were found to be incomplete in the wake of the Ray Gallison scandal.
“The lack of disclosure we have seen by lawmakers in the last several months continues to be troubling,” Marion said in an email. “Despite the sunlight shone on this issue, and the unprecedented grace period adopted by the Ethics Commission, we still see lawmakers failing to disclose their ties to nonprofits.”
“Financial disclosure is such an important component of our ethics law it’s part of our state’s constitution, yet some lawmakers seem to consider it an afterthought,” he said.
Jason Gramitt, the Ethics Commission’s staff attorney, declined to comment specifically on the Black and Latino Caucus nonprofit when asked about its absence from the two legislators’ disclosure forms. But speaking generally, he noted that the form’s language is clear.
Specifically, the form instructs officials to say if they served as “a director, officer, partner, or trustee of any business, organization or other entity (for profit or nonprofit)” the prior year. A separate instructions sheet explains that the commission wants to know “all positions of management, as well as positions of director, officer, partner, trustee or positions of a similar nature in any entity (including non-profits).”
Nonprofit’s new leader resides in Fall River
Williams incorporated the Black and Latino Caucus as a nonprofit on July 20, 2010, listing its address as Room 5 of the State House in an initial filing with the secretary of state’s office. The registered agent was former Rep. Maria Lopes, and its initial board members were all lawmakers: Williams, Fox, Metts, Sen. Juan Pichardo, Rep. Joe Almeida and Rep. Grace Diaz.
“It came together based on a need for more scholarships for black and brown students that were in need of financial assistance in the city of Providence,” Williams recalled.
A year later, Williams replaced Lopes as the nonprofit’s registered agent, state filings from July 2011 show. Of the original board members, only two – Williams and Metts – were still listed as being on the board, with one new member added, then-Rep. Leo Medina.
Even after the 2013 rules change that Williams says ended the nonprofit’s ties to the State House, its connection to legislators remained clear to Rodney Chesson, an activist in the local Liberian community.
In a March 2014 Facebook post, Chesson said he’d recently received an invitation “from the Rhode Island Black and Latino Caucus (a body of all Rhode Island State Representatives from the Black and Latino Communities) to the African and African communities inviting community members [to] their 4th annual fundraiser on Thursday, March 20, 2014.”
“The Black and Latino Community Partnership is a 501C3 tax exempt, non-profit organization,” Chesson wrote. “The Caucus is asking for donations to this effort as follows: Friends: $25.00; Patron: $50.00; Supporters: $100.00; Sustainers: $200.00, and; Corporate Sponsors: $500.00 – $1000.00. Checks can be mailed to: Black and Latino Caucus Community Partnership, P.O. Box 5827, Providence, Rhode Island 02903.”
R.I. Board of Elections records show a number of politicians used their campaign accounts to donate money to the nonprofit between 2010 and 2014. Among them were then-gubernatorial candidates Gina Raimondo, who gave $100 through her PAC, and Clay Pell, who gave $100 to purchase what was listed as a print advertisement. Other donors included then-House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, who gave $100 in 2012. Metts himself gave $500.
City records show the nonprofit also received $100 of taxpayer money in March 2014 through an appropriation from the Providence City Council’s contingency fund.
Williams listed herself as “chair” of the “Black and Latino Caucus” on her Ethics Commission financial disclosures for 2009, 2010 and 2011 but has not done so in the four years since. Filings with the IRS and secretary of state’s office always described her as “president” of the private nonprofit, as opposed to her title as chair of the official legislative caucus.
However, Williams’ formal role with the nonprofit Black and Latino Caucus came to an end last month, when a filing with the secretary of state showed an entirely new four-person board, chaired by Tracy Richotte, a Fall River resident. Williams said the new board members are younger individuals who’ve “stepped up” to take over leadership of the organization.
“We’re going to move forward and upward, because the kids in our neighborhoods as you see today certainly need us and that’s why we’re here,” Williams said. “It would be a disservice for me to turn my back – I’m elected by the people, I need to represent the people and certainly assist them, and one of the ways that I’m doing that – we are all doing – is by providing some of the students scholarships to further their education.”
Asked if that meant she was still involved with the Black and Latino Caucus nonprofit despite no longer being listed as its president, Williams said: “No, I’m no longer involved per se in the sense that, there aren’t meetings, like you meet all the time and stuff like that, so no.”
Elected in 1992 to represent Providence’s West End, Williams was the first Hispanic member of the Rhode Island legislature. She is seeking re-election to her 13th term this fall. She is being challenged in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary by Michael Gazdacko, a member of the City Plan Commission.