Council President Aponte charged with embezzlement in campaign finance probe

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence City Council President Luis Aponte was arraigned Wednesday on four charges – including embezzlement – stemming from a Rhode Island State Police investigation into his alleged misuse of campaign funds.

Appearing before Superior Court Judge Luis Matos, Aponte pleaded not guilty to two felony charges – unlawful appropriation from his campaign fund and embezzlement – and two misdemeanor counts of unlawfully using campaign funds for personal use. Aponte was indicted by a statewide grand jury.

Aponte, a Democrat, is scheduled to appear in court June 19. He was released on $1,000 personal recognizance.

Artin Coloian, who has represented Aponte on matters related to an ongoing probe into the use of his campaign fund, confirmed the indictment prior to Aponte’s court appearance, but declined to comment after the arraignment.

Mayor Jorge Elorza quickly issued a statement calling for Aponte to resign as president of the council.

“It’s deeply disappointing to once again learn of charges against a city council member here in our city,” Elorza said. “Providence has worked so hard to overcome this stereotype and today’s indictment of Council President Luis Aponte proves that we still have a long way to go to ensure ethics and transparency for our residents.”

The charges come after commissioners for the R.I. Board of Elections voted in September to forward a report about Aponte to the attorney general’s office, saying they had reason to believe Aponte and Gwendolyn J. Buckley Andrade, his campaign treasurer and ex-wife, violated Rhode Island’s campaign finance law, which prohibits the use of campaign funds for personal expenses.

Aponte was elected to the City Council in 1998 and represents Ward 10 in the city’s Washington Park neighborhood. He has served as president of the 15-member legislative body since 2015, earning $20,850 a year, the same amount as Majority Leader Bryan Principe. The rest of the council members are paid $18,765 annually.

Aponte has a long history of campaign finance violations. In 2005, the Board of Elections was awarded a civil judgment against Aponte for $14,000 for delinquent campaign finance report filings. The judgment was increased to $19,700 two years later after he was found in contempt. The board said the judgment was paid in full in 2014, but as of last September Aponte still faced $47,916 in penalties for additional late filings.

The Board of Elections’ decision to refer the case to the attorney general was not related to Aponte’s late filings, however. It was related to how Aponte spent campaign funds.

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

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

Separately, the R.I. Ethics Commission voted in January 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 owned by his former landlord last year. The commission’s next step in the process is to either reach a settlement with Aponte or adjudicate the matter. Aponte has filed suit against the commission to freeze the probe.

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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