Docs reveal why Council President Aponte’s campaign cash under spotlight

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence City Council President Luis Aponte borrowed thousands of dollars from his city retirement account and his ex-wife in order to reimburse his campaign fund for more than $15,000 in personal or unexplained expenditures over the last six years, according to a report released Thursday by the R.I. Board of Elections.

The 57-page report, obtained by Eyewitness News through a public records request, paints a bleak picture of the 53-year-old Democrat’s personal finances. It suggests he repeatedly used his campaign fund to cover everyday expenses such as groceries and gas as well as Netflix and iTunes charges.

The report also shows Aponte did not have a personal bank account between Nov. 23, 2014, and April 2, 2015, and again from Oct. 5, 2015, through at least April 27, 2016, when he signed an affidavit with the board explaining that he reimbursed his campaign using $1,700 from a loan from his city retirement account and a $13,942 loan from Gwendolyn J. Buckley Andrade, his ex-wife and current campaign treasurer.

The board members voted Wednesday to send the report to Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s office, saying they had reason to believe Aponte and Buckley violated Rhode Island’s campaign finance law, which prohibits the use of campaign funds for personal expenses.

A spokesperson for Kilmartin said Thursday the office was not yet in receipt of the report.

Aponte’s attorney, Artin Coloian, acknowledged he and Aponte “preemptively approached” the board to begin resolving campaign-finance-related issues 18 months ago.

“I respectfully disagree with the board’s vote,” Coloian said. “I think it sends a wrong message that if someone makes a mistake and realizes it, then proactively tries to rectify it, they’re punished anyway.”

The report was prepared and presented to the board by Richard Thornton, the state’s director of campaign finance. Thornton said the board was contacted by Coloian in March 2015 to resolve nearly $48,000 in late filing penalties Aponte was facing due to his repeated failure to file quarterly campaign finance reports on time as well as “the personal use in 2014 of approximately $1,700 in campaign funds” by Buckley Andrade.

In an affidavit, Aponte said he reimbursed the campaign for $1,700 on May 18, 2015, using a portion of a $4,000 withdrawal made from his city retirement account.

After reviewing Aponte’s campaign bank records, Thornton said he found another discrepancy – totaling $13,942 – between what was actually in the account and what Aponte was reporting in his quarterly reports. Aponte said he reimbursed the campaign for the full amount using a personal loan from Buckley Andrade.

The report states that Aponte provided “no source documentation or receipts” to support the $13,942 in expenditures, so the board subpoenaed his bank records. In a separate affidavit, Buckley Andrade stated that all of Aponte’s campaign bank records were destroyed in 2013 when a shredding company she hired to remove her late father’s personal documents also took Aponte’s records.

Thornton’s review of Aponte’s campaign expenses and personal bank account expenses from December 2013 through December 2015 “suggests that campaign funds were used for personal expenses, particularly during periods when there were insufficient funds in his personal bank account,” the report states.

The report shows that Aponte’s personal bank account began showing a negative balance around the same time he ended his employment with Urban League of Rhode Island in 2013.

For example, while Aponte’s personal account was overdrawn by $81 on Dec. 18, 2013, his campaign account shows $50 in expenses at PriceRite and $19 at a restaurant. The report highlights thousands of dollars in expenditures Thornton believes may have been personal in nature during periods in which Aponte’s personal account was overdrawn or nonexistent.

Coloian acknowledged Wednesday Aponte has in the past commingled his campaign and personal bank accounts, but said he now has separate accounts. The board said Aponte’s paycheck from his elected position on the City Council is directly deposited into an account in Buckley Andrade’s name.

In 2015, after former House Speaker Gordon Fox was sent to prison for admitting he accepted bribes and used his campaign fund for personal expenses, state lawmakers passed a law prohibiting politicians from comingling their accounts.

The report also details previous interactions the board has had with Aponte, who was elected in 1998 to represent Ward 10 and ascended to council president in 2015. In 2005, the board was awarded a civil judgment against Aponte for $14,000 for delinquent campaign finance report filings. Two years later, the judgment was increased to $19,700 after he was found in contempt.

The board said the judgment was paid in full in 2014, but Aponte now has $47,916 in penalties for more late filings. Coloian has said Aponte hopes to reach a settlement agreement with the board.

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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