Then again, although the Ocean State is often linked with those places with a particularly rich vein of public chicanery — including Louisiana, New Jersey, Chicago, and Philadelphia — close observers detect a real difference from the days of Brian Sarault and Edward DiPrete.
“If you think back to 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, I think there’s been a real change in the culture,” says Maureen Moakley, chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Rhode Island. “There will always be people like Celona, who do what they can to take advantage, but I don’t think these cases are typical at all.”
As demonstrated by the Roger Williams’ trial, Moakley detects a broader approach in policing corruption. “Ultimately, the responsibility is with Celona not to sell his office, but someone has to do the asking, and it’s about time we looked at that,” she says. This case, Moakley adds, shows how federal prosecutors are “taking a more serious look at this.”
In terms of Celona’s illicit conduct, “I think the private sector bears significant culpability,” says Brown University political science professor Darrell West. “They’re the ones who put in motion the requests for special privileges.”
To some denizens of talk-radio nation, the General Assembly is synonymous with corruption.
Yet Common Cause’s Phil West, who appeared during Governor Carcieri’s September 20 news conference on ethics reform, prefaced his remarks by noting how ruling parties tend to run into lapses — whether they’re Republicans in Washington or Democrats in Rhode Island. “At this point, I’m not sure we’re woefully worse than many other states, and in some areas, I think we’re better off, in terms of what our Ethics Commission is, and how it works,” West adds in an interview.
Considering the state’s small size, and the attention given to wrongdoing, a relatively small number of cases may foster an exaggerated sense of corruption.
Politics ain’t beanbag, as the saying goes. The rough edges of the old school could be seen during the recent primary season, when, for example, several Providence City Council campaigns reported receiving threats. Nor was it a shining moment for Senate President Joseph Montalbano when he, according to a report by WJAR-TV’s Bill Rappleye, asked a North Providence businessman (who receives state funds for elder care) to remove a sign supporting Guillaume de Ramel, the opponent of a Montalbano ally, Ralph Mollis, who won the Democratic vote for secretary of state.
Generally, though, observers cite an upward trend. Phil West points to the so-called “Celona bill,” which became law in 2004, in response to the revelations about the state senator (who got hit with a record $130,000 fine by the Ethics Commission, and who awaits sentencing, after pleading guilty in 2005 to corruption charges). The Common Cause-drafted measure requires lobbyists and lobbying firms to disclose anything valued more than $250 that is paid to any major state decision-maker, including legislators. Through the use of a W-2-like reporting system, with copies to the Ethics Commission and the Secretary of State’s office, the measure aims to avert the kind of undisclosed payments epitomized by Celona.
West says a public accountability measure sponsored by Fogarty earlier this year, which requires the secretary of state to compile an annual report on lobbying activities, closes other loopholes.