Despite having worked in the past as legal counsel for the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, William J. Conley, Jr., may have run afoul of one of its regulations after he became the Democratic state senator from district 18 in East Providence and Pawtucket.
According to the vendor payments module of RIOpenGov.org — the transparency Web site of the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity — Conley has received $62,517 in payments from state agencies in the past five years. Of that $47,030 was paid after he was sworn in as senator after the November 2012 election.
Conley’s payments do not appear to share the explanation of some of the other lawyers whose names came up when the Ocean State Current investigated lawmakers who have received payments from the state as outside vendors. In those cases, the legislators represented clients who won judgments or appeals against state agencies, which then paid the lawyer fees directly.
In Conley’s case, the money was explicitly for his work, and that of his law firm, as outside counsel for the state government.
Through an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request concerning the largest payment to Sen. Conley ($42,485), made on August 20, 2013, the Current obtained a package of documents providing the details. In a letter to Conley, on the letterhead of the Department of Attorney General, Assistant Attorney General James R. Lee expresses his office’s interest in having “outside counsel represent the State in” the case of U.S. D.O.J, et al. v. Rhode Island (OHHS, et al). “We wish to retain you as counsel in this matter,” Lee wrote to Conley, offering a rate of $150 per hour.
The letter is dated January 23, 2013, approximately three weeks after Conley’s General Assembly class was sworn into office and two months after Conley walked through the election with only write-in competition. He received 98% of the vote.
According to Amy Kempe, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, the case on which Conley worked had to do with the state’s implementation of a federal program to place disabled people in the workforce. A conflict of interest arose for the AG because his office was already investigating “criminal allegations related to the same subject matter.”
As explained last week on the Current, regulation 36-14-5007 of the state Code of Ethics prohibits members of the General Assembly (that is, representatives and senators) from “seek[ing] or accept[ing] state employment,” which includes “service as an independent contractor or consultant to the state or any state agency.” The invoices included in the APRA package that the Current received from the state Department of Administration show specific billable hours attributed to Senator Conley’s work on the case in question.
A search of the Ethics Commission’s Web site does not indicate that Senator Conley sought an advisory opinion about the application of regulation 5007 to his employment with the state. However, his name comes up frequently in minutes of the commission, as its own legal counsel (prior to his election as senator).
A broader search does turn up a relevant advisory opinion requested by then-Senator John Tassoni. In that opinion, the commission expressly stated that the senator was “prohibited by the Code of Ethics from providing arbitration and mediation services to state agencies” because of regulation 5007.
The advisory opinion does not specify which lawyers for the commission studied Tassoni’s question. However, the commission’s meeting minutes note that Conley was present and acting as Commission Legal Counsel for both the November 17, 2009, meeting at which the commission considered Tassoni’s case and the December 1, 2009, meeting at which it issued the advisory opinion.
Additional documents obtained from the state show that Senator Conley received another payment, of $4,545, in October 2013 for additional work on the case. The senator has not responded to multiple emails to his official State House account.
Records from the Secretary of State’s office show that Senator Conley is running for another term. He has no opposition.