City treasurer refuses to pay Elorza administration’s State House lobbyist

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The legislative session is over, but a firm hired by the Elorza administration to lobby the General Assembly still hasn’t been paid.

City Treasurer James Lombardi said Monday he hasn’t cut a $36,000 check to Government Strategies Inc. because the administration never asked the city’s Board of Contract and Supply for approval to hire the firm.

Lombardi contends that all city contracts worth more than $5,000 must be approved by the board before he releases a payment. He said he doesn’t believe the lobbying contract needs to go out to bid, but the board does need to vote in favor of the agreement.

“I am surprised by the lack of transparency in the hiring of outside attorneys and consultants,” Lombardi told Eyewitness News.

The administration and city solicitor Jeff Dana have a different interpretation of the rules surrounding the contract.

“State law exempts legal services from the bidding process and, in accordance with the law, this administration, like previous administrations, does not put lobbying and other legal services out to bid,” Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for Elorza, said. “We expect the treasurer to fulfill his obligation to release the checks which he has been holding as they were issued to pay the city’s lobbying firm for work that has already been performed.”

A review of Board of Contract and Supply meeting minutes shows at least one example of a previous administration seeking approval to hire a lobbyist. In 2007 the board approved a $5,000-per-month contract for Mayor David Cicilline’s administration to hire Virginia Mayer as the city’s lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

Incorporated in 1998 by Gayle Wolf, Government Strategies had 21 clients during the 2017 legislative session, according to public disclosures filed with the R.I. secretary of state’s office. Notable clients included Brown University, Prime Healthcare Management, the Rhode Island Healthcare Association, the Rhode Island Daily Newspaper Association and the Rhode Island Builders Association. Providence has been using the firm since 2012.

Wolf did not respond to a request for comment.

Lombardi and the Elorza administration have repeatedly clashed over the hiring of outside attorneys and consultants because the treasurer maintains those services need to be approved by the Board of Contract and Supply. Earlier this year, Lombardi refused to release payment to a law firm hired to assist the Providence Board of Canvassers during the recall process of Ward 3 Councilman Kevin Jackson. The firm ended up getting paid.

“There are millions of dollars in no bid contracts without transparency,” Lombardi said. “The taxpayers deserve better. The charter procedures are not being followed.”

The dispute over Government Strategies’ contract is made more complicated by the City Council’s decision to hire its own lobbyist – well-known political operative Jeff Britt – this year. Lombardi, who also works as a senior advisor to the council, said Britt’s contract was not required to go to the Board of Contract and Supply because more than two-thirds of the City Council voted to approve the agreement.

Lombardi said he has no objection to the work Government Strategies has done, but he wants the city to follow the appropriate protocols.

“I don’t know why it’s being held up, to be honest,” Lombardi said.

Continue the discussion on Facebook

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