Former US Attorney Neronha announces run for RI attorney general

JAMESTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – Proclaiming Rhode Island needs a top prosecutor with the “independence and experience” to take on public corruption, former U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha on Tuesday officially announced his candidacy for Rhode Island attorney general.

The 53-year-old Democrat entered the race surrounded by family and supporters on the waterfront in his hometown of Jamestown.

“Rhode Island has a well-earned reputation for political corruption, and that reputation is holding this state back economically and in other ways,” Neronha said in his speech. “We need all of our public officials – every one of them – to do what most are already doing, serve the people, not themselves.”

Public corruption was front and center in Neronha’s remarks, but he also said if elected he would use his office to continue to battle the opioid crisis, fight child sex trafficking, and implement a “real strategy” to combat violent crime.

“We can’t go back 30 years in time and say we’re going to lock everybody up for as long as possible,” Neronha said. “It’s too expensive, it won’t work, and it’s not right.”

A Jamestown native and North Kingstown High School graduate, Neronha first joined the U.S. attorney’s office in 2002 as an assistant U.S. attorney, after previously serving as a special assistant attorney general under former R.I. Attorney General Jeffrey Pine.

In March, Neronha stepped down during a mass firing of U.S. attorneys across the county by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“When Donald Trump said my work was over, Shelly and I decided it wasn’t,” Neronha said, referring to his wife, Dr. Shelly Johnson.

During his tenure leading the Rhode Island U.S. attorney’s office, Neronha successfully brought cases against high-profile organized crime figures – including former mob boss Luigi “Baby Shacks” Manocchio – and politicians. Among the latter group, former House Speaker Gordon Fox and former House Finance Chairman Raymond Gallison were both sent to federal prison. He also oversaw a sweeping public corruption probe in North Providence that led to the downfall of three town council members and a former city solicitor.

In attendance for Neronha’s announcement were current and former law enforcement figures including the two previous state police superintendents, Brendan Doherty and Steven O’Donnell. The chief of the Woonsocket Police Department, Thomas Oates, was also there to show his support.

“Peter through his whole career has the utmost integrity,” Oates said. “He’s a great supporter of police officers in general but he also has the other side where he is compassionate.”

Doherty – who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2012 as a Republican but has since switched to the Democratic Party – called himself a “longtime friend” of Neronha’s.

“I’m thrilled he decided to run for attorney general,” Doherty said. “I was always impressed with his work ethic.”

O’Donnell called Neronha a “great U.S. Attorney and the relationship he has with law enforcement and the community is unprecedented.”

Neronha is the first candidate to throw his hat into the ring for the job. State Rep. Robert Craven, D-North Kingstown, has said he is considering running, as has state Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket.

Neronha said he has not spoken to Craven about the position and doesn’t know if he will face a primary challenger. Craven did not immediately return a call for comment.

Nesselbush told Eyewitness News she is “still mulling it over” and will make up her mind by the end of the year. “I’d like to start the new year with a clear focus and clear direction,” she said.

State Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell told Eyewitness News last week that the GOP’s plans for the race are up in the air. “Just talking to people,” Bell said. “There’s some interest. It’s an open seat.” Asked if he would run himself, Bell said, “Anything’s possible.”

Current Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, a two-term Democrat, is barred by term limits from running again.

Kilmartin has been at odds with Gov. Gina Raimondo over the release of documents from the 38 Studios investigation. In June, the attorney general sought a restraining order to block the release of documents including secret grand jury materials.

Neronha told reporters that “as much information gets out there as possible.”

“My view is as much material can get released with the permission of the courts, does get released,” he said. “I think it would be helpful if the parties involved in pushing that material out try to get on the same page.”

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook