Tales of Corruption in Southeastern New England

A thread or two run through four stories of local corruption, and they teach a lesson about the operation of government and our philosophy about its use.  Start with the biggest story: the second arrest of Fall River’s young Democrat mayor Jasiel Correia.

The pop-culture reference that comes to mind is that scene in the movie Casino in which the FBI records a bit player in the mob as he rants on and on about how his cohorts are ripping him off and he writes it all down, leading the way to the big bust.  In Fall River, a few “middle men” for the alleged bribery scheme report not only on their own actions, but on the complaints of Correia’s chief of staff, Genoveva Andrade, about how the mayor takes a portion of her pay.

Around the edges is the impression that everything costs something with the administration, if you know what I mean, but at the center is the city’s windfall of legal marijuana.  With a legal regime that winds up handing the mayor the sole authority to issue certificates to sell the drug, the temptation is awfully strong, and he reportedly racked up $600,000 in bribes.

The money flowed in by every available channel.  Cash.  Marijuana for resale.  Down payment on a Mercedes.  A free Rolex.  And (of course) campaign donations, including for example $20,000 given to his fund to pay legal fees related to his earlier arrest.

The first thread of corruption in this story involves government’s choke points for business, which make it tempting, possible, and even obligatory to cut in those who are politically powerful.  The second thread is government’s entry into a line of business, which is essentially what the practice has become for industries that were formerly the province of organized crime.

The next story comes from across Mount Hope Bay, in Bristol, with the arraignment of Laufton Ascencao.  The young progressive General Assembly candidate won his race as a Democrat but had to relinquish the seat when controversy arose.  In his case, the charges have to do with his alleged misappropriation of funds over which he had control for the local chapter of the Sierra Club.  Some went into his campaign account; some went to other activist organizations.  Through it all, he claimed to have paid for things that he actually hadn’t.

One can almost feel for the young man.  After all, slushing money around is how the game appears to work.  He just wasn’t savvy enough to stay on the legal side of the line.  Campaign finance rules create a pool of restricted-use funds, and the network of activist groups slides in to soak it up.

Now head up the Providence River to East Providence, where a deputy city clerk on probation is the headline but not ultimately the relevant story.  In that case, Leah Stoddard has had various run-ins with the law owing to a repeated practice of jealousy-related spying, and her party-machine mother has a similar history.  Stoddard joined Democrat Mayor Bob DaSilva on a political quasi-junket to the Azores.

The real crux of the story comes with statements from the two members of the state General Assembly, Representative Gregg Amore and Senator Valarie Lawson, both Democrats.  They assure the public that they didn’t use any of their campaign finance money to pay for things that were not somehow related to their elective offices.  Nope, no campaign cash to pay for golf, but the $1,715 round-trip flight was a different matter.  Amore’s explanation is worth committing to memory as a classic of the genre:

… Amore’s district is in a city with a large Portuguese-American population that would benefit from flights between the Azores and Rhode Island, he noted. … he said, there’s a meeting scheduled with legislative leaders and the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, where they’ll discuss what he learned in Portugal about flights there.

See, this is how it’s supposed to be done.  Collect the campaign cash and then use it here and there, wherever you can come up with some thin rationale.  Hey, it was a $1,715 test flight so he could report back to the state.  All on the up and up!

Finally, there’s the big time and completely legal (so far) relationship between Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s administration and gambling-tech company IGT, which Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello has called “incestuous.”  He said the state Lottery has become “an arm of the Raimondo administration” (as reporter Katherine Gregg paraphrased it), even a former IGT executive blends into the governor’s role with the Democratic Governor’s Association, which all fits neatly into a recurring theme of the governor’s time in office.

The Commerce Corp. and especially its director, Stefan Pryor, have been indistinguishable from Raimondo boosters from the beginning.  The State Police has taken on a distinctly less-independent, more-political feel under her.  She has spread platoons of PR people across state government, and they bounce between the governor’s office, her campaign, the DGA, and outside PR firms.  With the transition from the Chafee administration to Raimondo’s, various government officials were told to route all requests through the PR people, and journalists and others have found it difficult to get information.

That is what focused, aligned, progressive governance looks like, and even as it fails to accomplish operational goals, it creates the conditions for the governor’s office, IGT, the Lottery, and Twin River to negotiate terms outside of public view.  This is the legal (so far) model that the mayor of Fall River was imitating.  An artificially constrained industry inflates prices so the public doesn’t notice the leaks of cash, and everybody who is somebody manages to get something out of it.  The trick is to diversify and launder the favor-buying through multiple forms spending and of influence.

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