WOONSOCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt has acknowledged she earns rent from her brother’s check-cashing business but says she takes offense at the suggestion her ties to the industry led her to introduce a bill cracking down on his potential competitors.
“If I for one minute thought that I was doing something wrong, why would I put this [bill] in?” Baldelli-Hunt, D-Woonsocket, told WPRI.com. “Why wouldn’t I give it to somebody else? That happens all the time – you know, ‘You want to put this bill in?'”
Baldelli-Hunt and her husband paid $410,000 in 2006 to buy 1173 Social Street in Woonsocket from a company incorporated by her brother, Dan Baldelli, who owns the pawnbroking and check-cashing firm The Gold Loan Company, city records show. Gold Loan operates one of its five locations at a kiosk in 1173 Social Street.
Asked how much her brother pays to rent the kiosk from her, Baldelli-Hunt replied: “Quite frankly, that’s none of your business.”
‘Not necessarily help’ Gold Loan
On Feb. 9, Baldelli-Hunt introduced a bill [pdf] that would eliminate an exemption in state law allowing retailers to cash checks without obtaining the same $300-a-year license that companies such as her brother’s must get. The House Corporations Committee will hold a hearing on her bill next Wednesday.
Baldelli-Hunt described the exemption as ripe for abuse. “What [this bill] could potentially do is not necessarily help my brother’s business or another check-cashers’ business, but it could potentially warrant for possibly another small business opening in an area where there is currently a lot of check-cashing happening that is happening illegally,” she said.
The legislation is the fifth one Baldelli-Hunt has put in to alter Rhode Island’s check-cashing rules since she was elected in 2006. One became law and one was vetoed by former Governor Carcieri. She said most of those dealt specifically with payday loans, a service her brother’s company is licensed to provide but does not offer currently.
Baldelli-Hunt described her expertise about check-cashing as an asset to the General Assembly. “If you happen to be informed regarding an industry in the state of Rhode Island and you’re informed about it and you understand that there are issues within that industry that need to be corrected, then I’m a disservice to my constituents if I don’t bring that forward,” she said.
No review by Ethics Commission
Rhode Island’s Code of Ethics says public officials can’t “participate in any matter as part of his or her public duties if he or she has reason to believe or expect that any person within his or her family, or any household member, is a party to or a participant in such matter, or will derive a direct monetary gain or suffer a direct monetary loss, or obtain an employment advantage, as the case may be.”
State lawmakers’ work has not been subject to the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission, which polices the code, since a 2009 Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling, and therefore there is no formal way to find out whether Baldelli-Hunt’s actions are acceptable, said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.
The key question would be whether her proposals benefit a broad class or a narrow one, he said. “We do want people to talk about their area of expertise – what we don’t want them to do is use their official position to benefit them individually,” Marion said. “That’s not an easy difference to define, but judging ethics has never been easy.”
“Without a real investigation about the flow of money here and exactly how these multiple pieces of legislation would affect her brother, and in turn her as her brother’s landlord, we can’t answer for sure I don’t think,” he added.
Senate skeptical of old ethics rules
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday will consider a bill [pdf] to restore the commission’s jurisdiction over lawmakers. House Speaker Gordon Fox passed a bill to do that in 2010, but it died in the Senate, where Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed is an avowed skeptic of the pre-2009 status quo ante on ethics.
“I have sponsored and supported ethics reform legislation in the past,” Fox told WPRI.com in a statement. “We are working with the Senate and Common Cause to see if we can have something that all parties can agree upon this session.”
Baldelli-Hunt expressed reservations about any limit on the immunity lawmakers receive due to the constitution’s speech in debate clause. “I never want to get to the point where we cannot stand up on the floor and from experience speak to an issue, and then it be held against us,” she said. “We cannot stifle speech in debate.”
Baldelli-Hunt blamed her political detractors for calling attention to her work on check-cashing. All businesses that cash checks should be subject to the same rules, and the exemption is an outdated relic of the early 1990s when there were more mom-and-pop corner stores in Rhode Island, she said.
Lawmakers sees RI ‘under-regulation’
Baldelli-Hunt, who describes herself as a conservative, acknowledged her legislation would add new regulations and increase costs for some businesses at a time of high unemployment, but said the alternative would be allowing illicit check-cashing to continue under the radar.
“Why is the state of Rhode Island doing an audit on legal licensed check-cashers but not on any type of store, whether it is Shaw’s, Home Depot, Wal-Mart like you mentioned, the neighborhood convenience store – you don’t feel that there should be some kind of paper trail?” she said.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is currently testing check-cashing services in Rhode Island at nine of its locations: Coventry, Cranston, Newport, North Kingston, North Smithfield, Providence and Warwick.
“There’s a fine line between over-regualting and then we have under-regulating,” she said. “Why can’t we meet in the middle somewhere and stop over-regulating in certain small businesses and then you’re under-regulating other people without any oversight?”
Baldelli-Hunt also suggested the state needs to hire more employees at the Department of Business Regulation and the Department of Motor Vehicles. “I truly believe that DBR is understaffed, I feel that DMV is understaffed,” she said. “There are departments in the state of Rhode Island and I feel that DBR, DMV, and I can name others – they are understaffed.”
The lead co-sponsors of Baldelli-Hunt’s bill are Reps. John Carnevale, D-Providence; Leo Medina, D-Providence; Rene Menard, D-Woonsocket; and Jon Brien, D-Woonsocket. Carnevale and Medina were two of the state lawmakers who faced criminal charges last year.
(photo: General Assembly)