Scott MacKay Commentary: Is Fox Yet Another RI Rascal Pol?

Mar 21, 2014

Once again, Rhode Island is attracting national attention for all the wrong reasons. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay has some thoughts about the federal raid on Speaker Gordon Fox’s office.

Former House Speaker Gordon Fox during the 2014 budget.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

The specter of corruption in high political office haunts Rhode Island. As it has seemingly forever. For a state still in the grip of the recession, there are few things worse than the scene at the Statehouse Friday.

As burly state police officers in windbreakers guarded the office of House Speaker Gordon Fox of Providence, federal FBI and IRS agents wielding a search warrant carted evidence out of the lair of one of Rhode Island’s most powerful politicians. Television cameras captured it all.

By lunch time it was all anyone was talking about in  the city’s restaurants, eclipsing even tonight's Providence College-North Carolina NCAA hoop tournament game. And the events lit up social media and the twittersphere.

Earlier, federal agents scoured Fox’s East Side home for evidence in what is pretty obviously a serious corruption probe.

As is the case with any citizen, Fox deserves the presumption of innocence. There is no confirmation yet that he is target. Yet the optics of all this are very, very bad for our beleaguered state. And his official silence has been troubling.

Fox, a 52- year old lawyer, was first elected to the House in 1992 in an election cycle that brought many new faces to Smith Hill in the aftermath of the state credit union collapse. His journey made for a good story, an up-from-poverty Rhode Island College graduate who went to Northeastern University Law School and won election from the neighborhood he grew up in.

Fox worked his way up the House ladder, serving as House Finance Chairman, majority leader and winning election as speaker in 2010. He is both the first African-American and the first openly gay speaker in Rhode Island history.

His leadership has included such milestones as the 2011 comprehensive pension overhaul and legalizing same sex marriage in last year’s session. Fox has worked well with colleagues in the vortex that is the Rhode Island capitol.

Yet, all that is for naught if Fox gets indicted, in which case he would obviously have to step down. While the federal search warrants and affidavits have been sealed by court order, most of the informed speculation is focused on legal work Fox did for the Providence Economic Development Partnership, a quasi-public agency. Records from that agency were subpoenaed last week by the FBI.

Fox recently paid a $1,500 fine to the state Ethics Commission for failing to disclose income he earned from the development partnership for legal work he did as a private lawyer.

And should Fox be convicted, he would be just the latest Rhode Island official to be ensnared in a web of official chicanery and wrongdoing. From its legacy as a colony that made its early fortunes from the African slave trade, through the Gilded Age after the Civil War and into modern times, too many in the state’s political and business circles have not been shy about trading favors for cash and other considerations.

Since the 1980s, Rhode Islanders have been subjected to a drumbeat of corruption in the state’s courts, city and town councils, among business leaders and in the General Assembly. An Ocean State Governor, Republican Edward DiPrete, even went to prison in the 1990s after pleading guilty to a corruption-related felony.

And former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci  served more than four years in federal prison after his 2002 conviction on federal racketeering charges. Now Cianci is talking about running again for mayor.

``The political condition of Rhode Island is notorious, acknowledged and it is shameful…Rhode Island is a state for sale and cheap.’’

Those words were written in 1904 by Lincoln Steffens, the muckraking journalist. It would be very sad if they prove to be true more than a century later.