Look in the mirror

By IAN DONNIS  |  January 18, 2006

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.”

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