Almost one year after a state-federal raid that sparked the sudden end of his political career, former House Speaker Gordon Fox is facing a three-year prison sentence as the result of an investigation charging him with bribery, wire fraud, and filing a false tax return.
According to US Attorney Peter Neronha, who outlined the details during a Tuesday morning news conference, Fox used $108,000 in campaign contributions for personal expenses; accepted a $52,000 bribe to support issuing a liquor license for an East Side restaurant, Shark Bar, while serving as vice chair of Providence's Board of Licenses in 2008; and failed to account for this income on his tax return.
The plea agreement calling for a three-year prison sentence for Fox faces approval by US District Court Judge Mary Lisi, who said she'll make her decision June 11. Fox entered a guilty plea during a noon appearance before Lisi.
"I'm just sorry this is going on," Fox told reporters on the courthouse steps.
Fox said he feels remorse for his actions. He briefly broke into tears while expressing sorrow for disappointing people who looked up to him, including his family.
"He's accepted responsibility," added Fox's lawyer, his predecessor as speaker, William Murphy. "We hope that Mr. Fox can put this behind this behind him and that it be a lesson for people."
Investigators say after transferring money from his campaign to personal accounts, Fox used the $108,000 to pay for the mortgage on his home, loan payments on his car, and the balance on his American Express card.
Fox, 53, grew up in Providence's hardscrabble Mount Hope section, as the biracial son of an Irish father and a Cape Verdean mother. After first winning election to the House in 1992, he steadily moved up the leadership ladder, becoming majority leader, and then the first openly gay House Speaker in the US in 2010.
Then came Friday, March 21, 2014, when state and federal investigators raided Fox's East Side home and Statehouse office, removing boxes of material. They declined at the time to provide details or even reveal whether Fox was the target of an investigation.
Governor Gina Raimondo reacted to the charges against Fox with this statement: "This is a sad day for Rhode Island; this situation is unacceptable. These events are deeply troubling, and we owe it to the citizens of Rhode Island to do better. Elected officials must always uphold the highest ethical standards -- people deserve honest government."
Neronha declined to say during his news conference when the probe of Fox began or what sparked it, although he vowed that investigators will remain vigilant in pursuing wrongdoing by public officials.
Neronha recounted how his five and a half-year tenure has coincided with the the conviction on corruption charges of three North Providence town councilors, a mayor, a state senator, and a deputy speaker of the Rhode Island House. "If we are serious about ending corruption -- really serious about it -- we can do it," he said. "But it requires real change in the way we do business. The good people of Rhode Island, those who have lived here all their lives and those who just arrived last week, are not getting what they deserve. And once and for all, that has to change."
Other investigators joined Neronha in expressing frustration about the persistence of corruption.
"You know, I scratch my head and it's troubling and very concerning that we keep finding ourselves back here with these officials," said Vincent Lisi, special agent in charge of the Boston office of the FBI (no relation to US District Court Judge Mary Lisi). "I'm not sure if it's these officials overcome with greed or that maybe it's arrogance, that they think they can away with this, or maybe a combination of both as to why we keep finding ourselves here. But what really befuddles me is that they haven't realized we're not going to go away. If you are a corrupt public official ... the boys in the band are going to get back together and we're going to come and we're going to get you, track you down, and then make sure you're brought to justice."
The charges against Fox follow an 18-month grand jury investigation led by federal and state prosecutors, the FBI, the IRS, and state police. The probe included more than 200 subpoenas and the examination of more than 36,000 bank, governmental, personal and campaign records belonging to Fox.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who won the leadership fight to succeed Fox last March, issued this statement: "There is no place for public corruption and I am extremely disappointed to learn about the charges against former Speaker Fox. The matter will be handled appropriately in the courts and the interest of the public and justice will ultimately be served. While this closes a very sad chapter, the House will continue to move forward and focus on the needs of the state.”
Meanwhile, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who took office in January, issued this statement: “Public corruption at any level of government will not be tolerated. I am particularly disappointed that an important City board was used as an avenue for such corruption. I applaud the work of the U.S. Attorney, the Attorney General, and other law enforcement entities in prosecuting this case and bringing it to justice. My administration is investigating whether the license can be legally revoked.”
This post has been updated. RIPR's John Bender contributed to this report.