What’s a new year in Rhode Island without a few indictments?
Such cynicism — some would say realism — might not seem out of place, given the state’s long-running association with corruption, as well as the particular nuances of this latest scandal linking politics and the private sector. What could be more quintessentially Rhode Island, after all, than a State House influence-peddling scheme in which three Roger Williams Medical Center officials are alleged to have deprived citizens of the honest services of former state Senator John A. Celona (D-North Providence), potentially jeopardizing the hospital’s Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements? Or how, in the first-ever federal corruption indictment of a nonprofit institution in Rhode Island, the defendants include a community hospital named for the state’s very founder?
There was a ritualized familiarity to the entire process surrounding the January 5 indictments, from the role played by federal prosecutors and the Providence Journal in unearthing related details, to how the media gaggle covering the January 12 arraignment tried to squeeze fresh news from an essentially bland procedural matter. (Asked by one reporter about his reaction to the defendants’ not-guilty pleas, US Attorney Robert Clark Corrente shot back, “It happens in almost every arraignment that I’ve ever seen.”)
Still, it would be unfortunate if an already apathetic public uses the Roger Williams Medical Center case as a rationale for bolstering its cynicism and reinforcing its disengagement from the civic process. Political dirty-dealing is hardly restricted to such perceived bulwarks as Rhode Island, Louisiana, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Jersey — a situation made abundantly clear by corruption scandals involving the likes of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Republican congressman from California.
The common link in these instances is an old story — the illicit things that not uncommonly happen because of the juncture of money and political power. Not coincidentally, the recognition of how big bucks dominate our political life leads average Americans to withdraw, because they believe they can’t make a difference. Yet considering such deeply entrenched public inattention, is it any surprise that some take advantage?
Power and money
“Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” a simple expression coined by Jesse Unruh, a former speaker of the California Assembly, offers a profound insight into our civic culture. Not only is the success of individual candidates closely tied to the relative volume of political donations, there remains a strong attraction between powerful interests and elected officials who can influence the course of legislation.
In Rhode Island, the veiled — if not completely hidden — ties between legislators and unions or private businesses have long concerned advocates of good government.
One such instance came to light in November 2004, when the Providence Journal’s Mike Stanton reported on how former state Representative Gerard M. Martineau, while in a position to influence legislation affecting Woonsocket-based drugstore giant CVS and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, was profiting from a private business relationship with the two companies. (Martineau, who declined to be interviewed at the time, told Stanton via e-mail that he was proud of his public service.)
Similarly, the tip of the current State House scandal came into public view in late 2003, when the ProJo’s Katherine Gregg revealed that CVS had been making significant, undisclosed payments to Celona. Celona, the former chair of a Senate committee overseeing some health-care issues, pleaded guilty to influence peddling in August, and he has been cooperating with investigators.
The next shoe fell earlier this month with the indictment of Roger Williams Medical Center; its chief executive, Robert A. Urciuoli, who was ousted this week as the hospital’s president; former executive Frances P. Driscoll; and Peter J. Sangermano Jr., a principal in an affiliated assisted living facility. Among other things, the indictment alleges that, between 1998 and 2004, Roger Williams paid Celona about $260,000 in consulting fees, and Celona “took steps to kill bills deemed harmful to Roger Williams and to advance legislation that Urciuoli and Driscoll considered favorable.” The defendants maintain their innocence.
Meanwhile, speculation centers on whether CVS and Blue Cross will be caught up in the “extremely active investigation” described by US Attorney Corrente.
House Speaker William J. Murphy last week floated the idea of a full-time legislature as a cure for some of the conflicts that can happen with a part-time General Assembly. Considering a seeming lack of public support, the concept appears to be a non-starter. When it comes to diminishing scandals in Rhode Island government, H. Philip West Jr., the executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, and Robert P. Arruda, the chairman of Operation Clean Government, believe — like Louis Brandeis, the late Supreme Court justice — that sunlight is the best disinfectant. As West says, “If the public can’t see the flow of money, they have no basis for suspecting that there may have been inappropriate influence.”
In 2004, after the revelations about Celona, the General Assembly passed a Common Cause-drafted bill requiring all lobbyists and lobbying firms to disclose anything of value over $250 that they paid to any major state decision-maker. The measure — dubbed the “Celona law” — passed on unanimous margins in the House and the Senate. Although certainly not a 100 percent guard against ethical lapses, the use of a W-2 like reporting system, with copies to the secretary of state and the state Ethics Commission, represented an upgrade in transparent government.
In 2005, however, legislators proposed an amendment to the 2004 lobbyist disclosure law, seeking what Common Cause deemed an overly broad exemption. Although both chambers acted to change the law, they ultimately decided not to forward the measure to Governor Donald L. Carcieri, perhaps because doing so might have resulted in unfavorable publicity. West calls the faltering of the legislative machinery “an ironic textbook study of money and power in a small state.”
Legislators take a very different view. As House Majority Leader Gordon Fox (D-Providence), who sponsored the 2004 disclosure law, writes in an e-mail, “The House did not try to water down the lobbying bill. The legislation proposed last year was an attempt to correct an overly broad interpretation of the language by the secretary of the state. For example, a lobbyist would have to report that he provides basic utility services like cable television, telephone, and electricity to Governor Carcieri and other elected officials.”
Although the legislature might revisit the measure this year, the ongoing influence-peddling probe leads West to assert, “I think it will be very hard for them to successfully gut this bill in this climate.”
Where's the public
Fifteen years ago, the state-banking crisis galvanized a forceful public response — mainly because the scandal hit people directly in their pocketbooks. “If all of a sudden your money’s gone and you have no idea of when you’re going to get it back, that’s pretty serious,” says Carcieri communications director Steve Kass, who, as a radio talk-show host at time, helped rally State House protests attended by thousands of people.
Now, though, although there’s certainly a cost associated with political corruption — albeit a more abstract one — increased cynicism seems like the most typical response to the ongoing probe of dealings on Smith Hill.
“I don’t know that I’d blame the public, but there’s some culpability on the part of the public,” says Operation Clean Government’s Arruda. “[Government is] going to bear what the public will tolerate. If the public tolerates this kind of influence peddling with little oversight, so be it — this is what is what we’ll be dealing with, scandal and denial. When the public gets to the point where it will no longer tolerate it, that will produce change.”
Although the fallout might work to Caricieri’s advantage as Rhode Island Republicans renew efforts to build their legislative numbers, it does little to instill confidence in public institutions.
As one State House veteran puts it, “Every time something like this happens, it’s five steps back in the public perception. I think a lot of people in the general public throw up their hands and say, ‘We can’t fix it.’ Everyone is lumped in one big package. It’s like the whole General Assembly is corrupt, or everyone who’s elected is corrupt — and that’s not the case.”
Fox sounds a similar note: “We accomplish a great deal in the General Assembly to improve the quality of life for all Rhode Islanders. It is unfortunate that isolated examples tarnish the good work of so many law-abiding public servants.”
Given Rhode Island’s picaresque history, further indictments and future political scandals seem like a certainty.
What would be truly surprising is if public interest in politics were to approach a level where it might discourage such illicit activity.
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