TGIF: 18 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Mar 11, 2016

Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.

1. The SEC's unveiling of fraud charges re-focused attention on the state's long-running 38 Studios drama this week. House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Karen MacBeth (D-Cumberland) responded by calling for an end to taxpayer payments to bondholders -- and it won't be a surprise if legislative Republicans seize on that issue, perhaps even before debating the next state budget. The SEC announcement didn't offer any new information on the state's signature recent boondoggle. Yet the charges against Wells Fargo Securities and the state's economic development agency mark the first government sanction to emerge from the mess, and they show how three separate tracks are converging almost four years after 38 Studios went bankrupt. The inclusion of the state agency now known as the Commerce Corporation raises questions about the outlook for the state's lawsuit against Wells Fargo, Curt Schilling, and a host of other defendants; it's slated to go to trial September 15. Meanwhile, the State Police investigation into 38 Studios is "coming to fruition very soon," Colonel Steven O'Donnell told me this week. He declined to specify a timetable or to comment on whether criminal charges are expected.

2. In a move to get ahead of the bond repayment debate, Governor Gina Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner issued this joint statement Friday afternoon: "As Rhode Island's elected leaders responsible for ensuring the state's financial well-being, we stand united in our continued support for honoring the moral obligation bonds issued to finance 38 Studios. While we share the frustration of many Rhode Islanders, it is in the best interest of the state and its taxpayers to pay these bonds. Defaulting on this obligation would lower the state's credit rating, harm our efforts to create jobs and grow Rhode Island's economy, and ultimately hurt the taxpayers."

3. Citizens Bank CEO Bruce Van Saun said Citizens never seriously considered leaving Rhode Island before deciding to build a new corporate campus in Johnston. To be sure, the retention of 5,000 jobs is a win for Rhode Island, even if many of those are being pulled from Cranston and other communities. The triumph is amplified considering early questions about whether Citizens would actually stay in the Ocean State.

4. Not a bad week for Governor Raimondo when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is among those praising the governor's new computer science initiative.

5. Does the demise of Rhode Island Taxpayers reflect apathy among citizens or more a lack of support for conservative ideas in Rhode Island? The answer may depend on one's political perspective. While RI Taxpayers began as the Rhode Island Shoreline Coalition, the stated goal remained the same: concern about government spending, and the group's daily e-blast, curated by Monique Chartier, made for a useful news roundup. Chartier now heads to a communications role with the conservative RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity. As a 501-C-3 nonprofit, the center is not required to disclose its donors. Some Democrats have long suspected a funding link to the Koch brothers, although Center CEO Mike Stenhouse said there's no money from the Kochs. "I can state that the rumors spread by our opponents about alleged national funding sources are completely unfounded, misguided, and 100% false," Stenhouse said, via email. "Our Center is 100% funded by donations from private individuals and foundations that support our local free-market agenda." Stenhouse said that's "unlike most of our friends on the left," who get money from "radical national advocacy groups to support a national or international big-government agenda." On the relative level of financial support for right-leaning groups in RI, Stenhouse said, "Fundraising is always a challenge for any center-right advocacy group in the Ocean State, especially given that we never accept public funding and we have no significant source of regular funding. We work very hard at soliciting private gifts, almost all of which come from in-state sources."

6. Dacia Toll, co-CEO and president of Achievement First schools, is coming to the Statehouse next Wednesday, March 16, to express concern about a bill that would impact mayoral academies, particularly the Achievement First-led Providence Mayoral Academy. The legislation would require approval from the city or town council of each sending district for the creation of a new charter or the expansion of an existing one. This is a particular concern for the Providence Mayoral Academy (grades K-5), located at Perry Middle School (where the building received millions in improvements from Achievement First); Parents of entering fourth-grader worry that their students would have to leave the school after 5th grade if the four sending communities (Providence, North Providence, Cranston, and Warwick) don't support the vision for adding additional higher grades.

7. State Director of Labor and Training Scott Jensen said it will take about six months to measure the effectiveness of the Raimondo administration's flagship employer-directed Real Jobs Rhode Island jobs program. Speaking on Rhode Island Public Radio's Political Roundtable this week, Jensen said almost 200 businesses have signed on, and the partnerships are becoming active in offering training programs. "I think we've had a handful of people get jobs, because the partnerships are just starting to ramp up," Jensen said. Some of the training programs are long term, "but many are 8, 9, 10 weeks, so we'll be able to judge whether or not" they're working at reconnecting people with jobs. Millions of dollars in mostly federal money has been allocated as part of Real Jobs RI.

8. Citizens took a long look at the vacant so-called Superman Building before deciding on its new campus in Johnston. PR/communications man Bill Fischer said the bank's decision "should remove any doubt that the Superman building will ever be a one tenant building again." Fischer, who represents the property, argues that a mixed-use approach makes the most sense. Perhaps the Providence Journal Building offers a model of the way forward. Buff Chace's Cornish Associates is remaking the structure with a mix of units, while seeking city tax breaks.

9. Next week is Sunshine Week, an annual event meant to spark discussion about government transparency (or the lack thereof) and the importance of access to information. To mark the occasion, RIPR will air Monday my Q&A with local freelance writer Phil Eil, about his long-running fight to get access to court evidence from a 2011 drug trial in Ohio. In the interim, consider a story that emerged this week: "Lawsuit reveals Obama's DoJ sabotaged Freedom of Information Act transparency"

10. With Donald Trump expected to win Rhode Island's Republican presidential primary on April 26, the absence of any formal events for his supporters in the near term remains striking. State Rep. Joseph Trillo (R-Warwick) said nothing is planned in mid-March -- a seeming vote of confidence in how Trump supporters already have their minds made up.

11. Speaking of Trump, Marcela Garcia argues in The Boston Globe that the GOP front-runner -- by forcing antagonistic talk into the open -- may be the best thing to happen to Latinos. Meanwhile, Brown University has what promises to be a provocative forum at noon next Tuesday, "The 2016 Presidential Election and the Hispanic Vote," featuring Domingo Morel (a former president of the RI Latino Political Action Committee), Salon writer Daniel Denvir, Clark professor Heather Silber Mohamed, and Brown professor Felipe Martinez-Pinzon.

12. One more on the Donald: Ben Terris' look at Trump's inner circle -- and how some if its members are literally willing to fight for their candidate -- is a super-compelling version of a longtime journalistic narrative.

13. NPR's popular weekend news quiz show, Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me, is coming to PPAC on May 12. Here's the scoop on how to get tickets.

14. US Representative David Cicilline remains in the quiet phase of his fourth House campaign, with a Providence Biltmore fundraiser co-chaired by Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and US Representative Jim Langevin set for this Sunday evening. Contribution levels range from $100 to $1,000 and the lengthy host committee is topped by Governor Raimondo, Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner. Cicilline faces a challenge from Republican Russell Taub.

15. "When vulgarity becomes part of the story, what's a news agency to do?" (h/t @mrsmith)

16. One group's take on the best and worst bills to emerge from the General Assembly so far in 2016. The RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity gave positive scores to just 10 of 113 lawmakers.

17. State Rep. Gregg Amore (D-East Providence) has introduced a bill that would provide potential compensation to wrongfully convicted people who've spent more than a year in prison. “It is a sad reality in our state and across the country that innocent people are sent to prison for crimes they did not commit," Amore said in a statement. "Because our criminal justice system is not infallible and because there have been significant advances in forensic science, there is a need for this legislation.

18. A dog saved this guy's life, after he saved the dog.