Commission finds probable cause that Council President Aponte violated ethics code

Council President Luis Aponte stands with Mayor Jorge Elorza and Jo-Ann Ryan to discuss a neighborhood tax-break policy.  (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)
Council President Luis Aponte stands with Mayor Jorge Elorza and Jo-Ann Ryan to discuss a neighborhood tax-break policy. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence City Council President Luis Aponte “knew or should have known” that his landlord lived in a multi-family home on the East Side at the time of a City Council vote to rezone the property, the R.I. Ethics Commission said Tuesday.

The commission voted unanimously to find probable cause that Aponte violated the state code of ethics when he twice voted in favor of the zoning change for a property at 53 Doyle Ave. owned by Keith Fernandes last April.

“From the eyes of the everyday reasonable person looking at the evidence discovered, it is difficult, if not implausible, to believe that the respondent, a tenant of Mr. Fernandes for four years and who has known him for even longer, did not know that his landlord owned and lived at the subject property,” a prosecutor for the commission wrote in a 15-page report.

The complaint, filed by city resident Allen Hance, accused Aponte of having a “business associate relationship” with Fernandes” because Aponte lived in another property owned by Fernandes at the time of the vote. (Aponte has since moved to another location.)

Under the code of ethics, a landlord/tenant relationship is considered a business association, according to the commission.

Both Aponte and Fernandes have denied they are in business together. Aponte has said he was unaware Fernandes was seeking a zoning variance and Fernandes said he intentionally did not have conversations with members of the City Council to “keep politics out of it.”

“I would’ve had to have known that there was a conflict,” Aponte said Tuesday. “The statute is very clear that it has to be knowing and willful. This is a matter that didn’t raise any controversy. At every step of the process, it had unanimous support.”

During the commission’s investigation, six sitting council members said they were aware that Fernandes owned the property on Doyle Avenue. Five councilors said they were aware that Aponte lived in another property owned by Fernandes at the time of the vote. Councilman Sam Zurier told an investigator he was “surprised” Aponte didn’t recuse himself.

Aponte maintained that he was unaware Fernandes owned the Doyle Avenue property, but the commission found that Aponte presided over a Special Committee on Ways and Means in 2014 where Fernandes gave public comment and listed 53 Doyle Avenue as his residence.

Ross Cheit, the chairman of the commission said there was “more than a mere suspicion” to believe that Aponte violated the code of ethics. He said the next step in the process is to either reach a settlement or adjudicate the matter.

“Aponte is accused of not recusing in a case when he voted on something where he had business relationship with his landlord,” Cheit said. Although the commission has the ability to fine violators of the state code of ethics up to $25,000, penalties are usually much smaller.

This is not Aponte’s first appearance in front of the Ethics Commission. In 2005. He was fined $7,500 for failing to file a mandatory annual financial disclosure form.

Separately, the Rhode Island State Police are investigating Aponte for his alleged misuse of campaign funds. The R.I. Board of Elections voted to send his case to the attorney general in September, claiming they found more than $15,000 in personal or unexplained expenditures in Aponte’s campaign account over a six-year period.

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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