The Rhode Island Ethics Commission voted Tuesday to dismiss an ethics complaint filed against Gov. Gina Raimondo by state Republican Chairman Brandon Bell.
Bell charged earlier this month that a fundraising agreement between Raimondo's campaign and the Providence Democratic City Committee violated ethics guidelines since the committee chairman who made the agreement, Patrick Ward, is an employee with the state Department of Human Services and was therefore subordinate to Raimondo.
But in a 5-to-1 vote, the commission ruled that Ward is not subordinate to the governor.
"Mr. Ward would not be deemed to be the Respondent's subordinate given that he is not 'an employee, contractor, consultant or appointed official of the [Respondent's] agency," the commission said in five-page decision. "As set forth in the Complaint, Mr. Ward is an employee of DHS, rather than an employee of the Office of the Governor. Here, Regulation 5011(c)'s defintion of subordinate would not extend to all employees or all agencies within the entire executive branch of government."
Ethics Commission members Ross Cheit, Marisa Quinn, Thomas P. Murphy, James V. Murray and Robert A. Salk voted to dismiss the complaint. J. Douglas Bennett voted against dismissal. Three commission members did not vote: Arianne Corrente, M. Therese Antone, and John D. Lynch.
Quinn, Murphy and Bennett were appointed to the commission by Raimondo.
“We are disappointed with the decision of the Ethics Commission not to investigate Raimondo’s fundraising deal with a state employee her administration recently hired," Bell said in a statement. "First, the Ethics Commission ignored the fact that Patrick Ward himself, not the office of Chairman of the Providence Democratic City Committee, was specifically named in the agreement as having control as to how the funds would be spent."
"The Ethics Commissions ignored the fact that under prior advisory rulings Ward would be considered a business associate of Raimondo since they were working together to achieve a common financial objective under the agreement," Bell continued. "Second, the Ethics Commission decided to interpret the term ‘subordinate’ in its regulations very narrowly. According to Ethics Commission’s decision, Governor Raimondo’s subordinates are only those individuals who work in the Governor Office or are persons she directly appointed to lead a state agency. The Ethics Commission ignored the fact that Mr. Ward is a subordinate of Governor Raimondo’s appointee at the Department of Human Services or that a few months after Mr. Ward was hired by Raimondo’s appointee at DHS, he entered into a financial transaction with Governor Raimondo."
“By its decision today, the Ethics Commission is saying Governor Raimondo can enter into a secret financial deal with a state employee," Bell concluded, "as long as (1) the deal states it is with a group the state employee controls rather than the employee himself, and (2) the state employee answers to her appointee instead of her. We do not think these technicalities make Governor Raimondo’s conduct somehow ethical.”
In ruling that Ward -- who has since stepped down as chairman of the Providence Democratic City Committee -- was not a subordinate of Raimondo, the Ethics Commission cited a 2007 case involving then-Gov. Don Carcieri.
In that case, the commission ruled unanimously that state employees were not subordinates of the governor, and that because of that, a fundraising solicitation to them did not run afoul of ethics guidelines. Yet the commission found that some state employees, including "an employee of the Office of Governor and five department heads, all under the direct control and supervision of Governor Carcieri," were subordinates of the governor.
Also Monday, one of Raimondo's would-be rivals, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, tweeted a video clip featuring criticism of the fundraising agreement between her campaign and the Providence Democratic City Committee. Raimondo's campaign released the agreement after it gained media attention.
In a statement, Raimondo's deputy campaign manager, David Ortiz, returned fire at Fung: "Instead of working to prevent mass shootings, Allan Fung and the Republicans have been focused on distracting Rhode Islanders with a phony ethics complaint that represents politics at its worst. By refusing to answer questions about important issues while spending his time misleading Rhode Islanders, Fung proves every day he’s not a real leader."
This story has been updated.