But CVS, as well as Blue Cross, emerged in a less flattering light following a string of ProJo disclosures about the companies’ ties to legislators, such as former Senate president William V. Irons of East Providence, who received about $25,000 in annual brokers’ fees, for at least four years, for selling BlueCHIP health insurance to CVS. (Irons resigned his post at the end of 2003, rather than answering questions about clients in his insurance business.) Former Representative Gerard M. Martineau, while in a position to influence legislation affecting CVS and Blue Cross, had also profited from a private business relationship with the two companies.
Then there’s Celona. During his testimony last week, Celona testified that he was concerned about the ailing family lawnmower business in North Providence when he asked Roger Williams president Robert Urciuoli for a job in 1997. He went on to work as a consultant for an affiliate of the medical center, using his legislative influence to promote its interests, while proceeding to later pick up work for CVS and Blue Cross.
Phil West says he hopes the trial resolves the question of whether “it was really that Celona was desperate and had started to shake down Urciuoli for a job, or whether these multiple outfits saw him as weak or corruptible. At this point, I think we know what he did, but I don’t think we know how it started. That’s what a trial is for.”
There was a time when West shopped at CVS, as a way of supporting a local business. He stopped doing that, he says, following the revelations about the company’s ties with Celona. “I’m not suggesting a boycott,” he says. “But I think at some point, there needs to be some recognition on their part that it’s not alright to steer business to public officials, with a wink and a nod toward gaining an edge. I don’t know what Tom Ryan is going to take out of this, but I hope there’s some soul-searching going on.”
In 2004, after its relationship with Celona was publicized, CVS hired former attorney general Jeffrey Pine to conduct an in-house investigation. Pine found that CVS had made “errors in judgment” by hiring Celona, but had not committed any crimes. Ryan also cited Celona’s $1000-a-month consulting agreement as “the only one of its kind for CVS.” In a statement this summer, CVS said it would be “inappropriate” for the company to comment on Celona, and the company said it “continues to cooperate with the government in this investigation.”
The status of that investigation — described by US Attorney Robert Clark Corrente in January as “extremely active” — remains a subject of intense interest for close political observers in Rhode Island.
But despite a grand jury probe and rumors over the summer of further action, new developments have yet to publicly unfold. Thomas Connell, Corrente’s spokesman, declined to comment on the status of the investigation.
School for scandal?
Suffice to say that last week — highlighted by the controversy surrounding the Station fire plea bargain, and by Celona’s federal court testimony — wasn’t a particularly good one for public confidence in government in Rhode Island. (Embattled Attorney General Patrick Lynch, a one-time lobbyist for CVS, has said he wasn’t aware at that time that Celona was working for the company.)