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Rhode Island has suffered from an inferiority complex dating back to colonial times, when Massachusetts minister Cotton Mather called it the “sewer of New England” and Connecticut tried to absorb the upstart colony. So it felt like just another blow this summer, when the former state House speaker landed in prison after pleading guilty to corruption- related charges.

First elected in 1992 and elevated to the state’s most powerful position in 2010, Gordon Fox had tip-toed through a series of scandals over the years — including an ethics fine, coziness with lobbyists and questions about his legal work for the City of Providence — before a federal corruption probe finally brought him down.

In June, Fox was sentenced to three years in prison after he admitted taking more than $50,000 in bribes from a Providence restaurant while serving on the city’s licensing board and using more than $100,000 in campaign money for personal expenses, including purchases at Tiffany’s and Urban Outfitters.

Reflecting on his downfall and the latest blow to Rhode Island’s tattered reputation, Fox quoted Hamlet at his sentencing – “thou canst not then be false to any man” – and added, “I hope this doesn’t create so much more cynicism that we keep good people [from] running for elected office.”

Sadly, Fox was not the only lawmaker to run afoul of the law this past year. In May, a state representative pleaded no contest to misusing campaign funds. He paid a $1,000 fine and resigned a leadership position, but remains in office.

The cases reflect a seedy political culture that persists despite some improvements to transparency in recent years, such as strengthening the open records law in 2012. It’s no surprise, then, that Rhode Island earned a grade of D+ in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. The state’s grade did rank it 5th best in the nation, but that speaks more to greater problems elsewhere than a tailwind of progress in the Ocean State.

Rhode Island’s score actually declined from the first investigation, in 2012, when the state earned a C that ranked it 9th. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the questions and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.

Behind closed doors

Secrecy has long been a problem in Rhode Island, particularly in the annual closed-door deliberations in which legislative leaders hammer out the budget after months of public hearings.

In February, newly elected Gov. Gina Raimondo told a conference on state government in Washington that, “for too long,” legislative leaders and lobbyists have gathered “in the dark of night, in a quiet room,” to carve up the budget. Her comments drew an angry rebuke from the speaker, whose support is critical to passing a budget.

But critics of the budget process say the governor spoke the truth. Once leaders release the final budget proposal, all that’s left is essentially an up-or-down vote by the rank-and-file. The public doesn’t learn details until it’s too late to make any changes.

Prominent scandals and anemic reforms

In the wake of Fox’s conviction, reformers pushed for legislation to tighten campaign-finance reporting and strengthen oversight of lobbyists. The effort led to a new law passed this year that requires candidates to submit their campaign bank statements, making it harder to lie about how much money they have in their accounts.

But the law keeps those records secret, relying on an understaffed elections board, funded by the General Assembly, to find irregularities. When WPRI news asked all 112 members of the General Assembly for their campaign bank records in March, legislative leaders emailed House members to say they supported keeping the bank records private. In the end, only 24 lawmakers provided the records.

“The Senate president and speaker of the House have a lot of power to punish members who don’t go along with what they want: legislative grants, committee assignments, literally parking spaces,” John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, told WPRI at the time.

Even such incremental progress has proven elusive when it comes to lobbyist oversight. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea took office in January vowing to clean up Rhode Island’s tangled patchwork of lobbying laws, strengthen her office’s oversight and stiffen penalties for violations. Again, it was a scandal involving Fox that fueled her efforts.

In 2010, the speaker pushed through an economic development loan program without revealing that $75 million was ticketed for 38 Studios, a video game company founded by former Boston Red Sox star Curt Schilling. Fox had agreed to help finance the company after meeting in secret with Michael Corso, a friend and business associate who was working for 38 Studios.

Corso had failed to register as a lobbyist, but because of the state’s weak and vague lobbying laws, the most the state could do was order him to register retroactively or pay a $2,000 fine. Corso refused and took the state to court. The new secretary of state dropped the matter this year, concluding that the weakness of the law undermined the state’s case.

Despite the loan, 38 Studios went bankrupt in 2012, sticking taxpayers with the bill. The episode caused lasting damage to public trust in government and undermined its efforts to boost a stagnant economy. But the legislature failed to pass any bills that would have fixed the lobbying laws before adjourning in June. Common Cause’s Marion says that leaders were reluctant to give the secretary of state subpoena power to investigate lobbyists.

Ethical dilemmas

One surprising bright spot for Rhode Island is the state’s ethics enforcement regime. The Ocean State has a muscular code of ethics that applies to all branches of government, and the state Ethics Commission can adopt new rules without having to go to the legislature. Those strengths and others led the state to earn a C+ in that category, the best in the nation.

The grade comes despite two notable setbacks in recent years, however. In 2009, a state Supreme Court decision exempted lawmakers from prosecution for ethics violations tied to their legislative duties after judges ruled that the work is protected by the state constitution’s speech-in-debate clause. And over the past three years, the Ethics Commission has stopped posting officials’ annual financial disclosure forms on its website, a response to complaints from legislators during the commission’s budget hearings, according to Ross Cheit, the commission’s chairman. The commission plans hearings on new rules to put the disclosures back online.

Still, the Ethics Commission remains an effective body, unlike many of its peers in other states. Common Cause’s Marion points out that it was a citizen’s complaint that led to the criminal case that toppled Fox, involving his legal work for the City of Providence.

“Rhode Island has had a long and storied history of corruption,” Marion said. “As a result, people demanded some very good ethics and public integrity laws. The struggle going forward is to see that they are effectively enforced.”

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