Providence settles lawsuit with member of city liquor board

Providence Board of Licenses meets on The $3 Bar. (photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The city of Providence has agreed to pay a sitting member of the Board of Licenses $18,000 to cover legal fees she accrued while she successfully defended herself against a Rhode Island Ethics Commission investigation.

The City Council Committee on Claims and Pending Suits approved the settlement at a meeting last week, ending a year-long legal battle between the city and Johanna Harris, a former chair of the licensing board who remains a member of the panel.

City solicitor Jeff Dana confirmed the city will pay Harris $18,000 to settle both the lawsuit and a related complaint with the R.I. Commission for Human Rights.

“We estimated that the continued defense of her cases would cost more than the amount we settled for,” Dana told Eyewitness News. “We determined this was in the taxpayers’ best interest.”

Harris did not respond to a request for comment.

Harris filed the suit in September 2015, claiming the city failed to indemnify her when a lawyer who regularly appears in front of the board filed a complaint against her with the R.I. Ethics Commission and then a lawsuit against her in Superior Court. She asked the city to pay her $17,983 for out-of-pocket legal bills.

The lawyer, former Democrat state Rep. Peter Petrarca, claimed Harris violated a provision in the code of ethics that prohibits officers or officials from “entering into a contract with any state or municipal agency unless the contract has been awarded through an open and public process.”

Harris acknowledged that the city awarded her a $200-per-hour no-bid contract to provide training to an unidentified “senior manager” with the city accused of sexual harassment in March 2014, but maintained she did not know she was violating the code of ethics. In her suit, she said the employee’s termination “would negate over one year of crucial work that he had performed in order to prevent the threatened loss of millions of dollars in federal funding.”

Petrarca filed suit against Harris in an attempt to force her to recuse herself from any matter involving his clients while the Ethics Commission was reviewing his complaint.

The commission dismissed Petrarca’s complaint and a judge dismissed his lawsuit.

In her lawsuit against the city, Harris argued that Rhode Island law requires public bodies to indemnify elected or appointed officials as long as they are “acting within the scope of his or her official duties or employment.”

The city argued that Harris could have used an attorney from the solicitor’s office instead of hiring her own lawyer. In a deposition, Dana acknowledged that he offered to settle the complaint for $3,000 and $5,000 at different times. At one point, he declined Harris’ offer to settle for $12,000.

The city was represented by Roberts, Carroll, Feldstein & Peirce, a downtown law firm. Harris represented herself in the suit.

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Dan McGowan ( ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan