Councilman Aponte’s lawsuit against Ethics Commission dismissed

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A Rhode Island judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by Providence City Councilman Luis Aponte arguing that he has “absolute legislative immunity” from the state Ethics Commission.

Superior Court Judge Maureen Keough dismissed the suit at a hearing Wednesday afternoon, according to Edward Roy, Aponte’s attorney.

Roy said he plans to consult with Aponte before deciding whether to appeal Keough’s decision to the state Supreme Court.

Aponte filed suit against the Ethics Commission in April in an attempt to freeze an ongoing probe into his 2016 vote to rezone a property owned by his then-landlord. Aponte claimed the commission had “no jurisdiction to bring any charges of violations” of the state ethics code against him based on his voting record because of his “common-law legislative privilege.”

In its request for a dismissal, the commission argued that local elected officials do not have the same level of legislative immunity that members of the Rhode Island House and Senate enjoyed until last November, when voters approved a change to the state constitution restoring the commission’s full oversight over the General Assembly.

The commission also suggested that Aponte’s vote to rezone a property was an administrative action and is not subject to legislative immunity.

In January the Ethics Commission voted unanimously to find probable cause that Aponte violated the ethics code in 2016 when he twice voted in favor of the zoning change for a property at 53 Doyle Ave. owned by Keith Fernandes. (The City Council voted unanimously to approve the change.)

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

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

Aponte has long maintained that he was not aware that Fernandes was the owner of the property that received the zoning variance and Fernandes has said he intentionally did not have conversations with members of the City Council to “keep politics out of it.”

Following a probable cause vote, the commission typically negotiates a settlement or adjudicates the matter. Although the commission has the ability to fine violators of the ethics code up to $25,000, penalties are usually much smaller. No adjudication hearing has been scheduled.

The commission’s probe is unrelated to the criminal charges Aponte is currently facing for allegedly misusing his campaign account. A statewide grand jury indicted Aponte last month on four charges. He has pleaded not guilty. He resigned from his position as president of the City Council but remains a member of the council.

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