The future leadership of the House of Representatives was cast in doubt Friday when state and federal investigators raided House Speaker Gordon Fox's Statehouse office and East Side home, leaving with boxes full of material. Fox and investigators did not comment on the nature of the probe.
Fox staffers were allowed to return to the office about six hours after it was raided around 10 am. Later in the day, Fox's spokesman, Larry Berman, says Fox had texted him to say he hadn't resigned his post as speaker.
Yet the specter of a probe involving the FBI, the IRS, and state police left political observers wondering if Fox could maintain the office he has held since 2010.
By 5:30 pm Friday, Fox's deputy, House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston) assembled a closed caucus with about 25 to 27 supporters at the Providence Marriott on Orms Street.
Emerging from the meeting, Mattiello told reporters there was no plan afoot to try to oust Fox. "We are leaving the speaker to his good decisions," Mattiello said, "and I wish the speaker well. I do not know what legal challenges he may or may not have. I wish him well, everyone in that room wished him well, and [ousting Fox] was not a topic of discussion."
It was nonetheless clear that a majority of the 75 lawmakers in the House either weren't invited or decided to stay away from the caucus. Some of the most prominent absentees included other members of Fox's leadership team, including Majority Whip Stephen Ucci (D-Johnston), Deputy Majority Whip Christopher Blazejewski (D-Providence), and House Finance Chairman Helio Melo (D-Providence).
If and when Fox leaves, Mattiello asserted he has the votes to become speaker. "I am confident I have the votes to be the next speaker, absolutely," he said.
The raid involving federal agents and state police was reminiscent of past probes that have jammed up a lengthy string of Rhode Island pols, from former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci to former Governor Ed DiPrete, whose state portrait hangs near the door to Fox's office. Asked what he would say to Rhode Islanders concerned about another possible black eye for the state's reputation, Mattiello said, "I love the state of Rhode Island, I love working on their behalf and most of the members of our chamber do the same .... I'm sorry there's a distraction, certainly something that I or the members that were in the room had no control over. To the extent that it's a distraction, I am very sorry about that, but I'm concerned about the business of the people."
The U.S. Attorney's office says that the affidavits and search warrants in the matter have been sealed by the federal court in Providence.
House Spokesman Larry Berman says he has no knowledge of the reasons for the raid.
"I was in my office working, and the state police came, and they asked me to leave," Berman told reporters. Berman said he did not know who the speaker has as a lawyer or even he if has hired a criminal attorney.
Fox was out sick Wednesday but did preside over House sessions on Tuesday and Thursday of this week. Berman says Fox normally doesn't come to his Statehouse office on Mondays and Fridays, days when the House is not in session.
The focus of the investigation was not immediately clear, but FBI agents were seen at Fox's home on Providence's East Side. A 52-year old Democrat, Fox has represented a district on the city's East Side since 1992. A lawyer, Fox recently paid a $1,500 fine to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission for failing to disclose income he earned from legal work for the Providence Economic Development Partnership, a quasi-public body. Records from that agency were subpoenaed last week by the FBI. In 2004, he paid an earlier fine in another case with the state Ethics Commission.
The other speculation focuses on the failed 38 Studios deal done under the administration of former Gov. Donald Carcieri, a Republican. Fox was speaker at the time the doomed deal was done. 38 Studios went bankrupt less than a year after the $75 million taxpayer-backed subsidy was enacted, leading in part to what Fox called his toughest re-election fight, in 1992.
But Peter Neronha, the U.S. Attorney, told WPRI-TV (Channel 12) last month that his office had reviewed the 38 Studios deal and no active investigations going on that matter.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee was out of Rhode Island yesterday at a conference. His spokeswoman, Faye Zuckerman, said he had been briefed on the Fox situation by State Police Col. Steven O'Donnell and that the governor has no comment because it is an ongoing investigation.