On Feb. 27, the Rhode Island Ethics Commission voted 5-to-1 to dismiss an ethics complaint filed by GOP Chairman Brandon Bell against Gov. Gina Raimondo, according to a report released by the Commission yesterday.
Bell’s complaint alleged that a Jan. 31 fundraising agreement between Raimondo’s re-election campaign and the Providence Democratic City Committee violated Regulation 36-14-5011, which prohibits financial transactions between employers and their employees.
The Providence Democratic City Committee’s Chairman, Patrick Ward, was a state employee at the time of the incident. Raimondo hired Ward in June 2017 as the chief of program development for the Rhode Island Department of Human Services at a salary of $71,608, according to the Providence Journal. Ward resigned from his position as Chairman Feb. 9 this year following backlash from a controversial meme he posted on Facebook.
The Commission’s ruling stated that because Ward was not a department head or working in the governor’s office, he was not under the “direct control and supervision” of Raimondo, which meant that the agreement did not violate the state ethics code. The Commission based its ruling on precedent from a 2006 case involving state employees and then-governor Donald Carcieri. In that case, the Commission ruled that “employees who served in other (executive) branch agencies, with multiple layers of supervision between that employee and the governor, were not direct subordinates,” said Jason Gramitt, an attorney for the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.
“The Ethics Commission ignored the fact that Mr. Ward is a subordinate of Governor Raimondo’s appointee at the Department of Human Services,” Bell said in a statement following the Commission’s decision.
Raimondo’s campaign did not initially announce its fundraising agreement with the Committee to the public. Following media coverage of this agreement’s existence, Raimondo’s office still did not release the contents of the agreement. Under pressure from a Providence Journal editorial, the R.I. GOP and members of Raimondo’s party who had not seen the agreement, the governor finally released the two-page document Feb. 18, more than two weeks after it was signed.
In the agreement, the Committee stated that it would authorize Ward to open three different bank accounts, one federal and two nonfederal, for Raimondo’s campaign funds. The Committee promised that Ward would be the only person with the authority to “spend, transfer and otherwise disburse funds” from these three accounts, as well as have the power to designate other people to act on his behalf, the agreement stated.
“Ward would have complete control over how the money would be spent, while Raimondo had control over Ward as her subordinate state employee,” Bell said in a statement following the agreement’s release.
The agreement included a plan for the Committee to develop a coordinated budget with the campaign. But it also stipulated that donors to the Committee could not assign their contribution to a distinct Democratic candidate.
The Committee and Raimondo’s campaign said in the agreement that their arrangement did not “create any relationship of employer and employee or of master and servant.”
The agreement allows Raimondo to bolster her fundraising, said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, a nonprofit focusing on government accountability. “Under R.I. law, donors can only give $1,000 per year to campaign but $10,000 to a party committee; we presume that she has donors who are maxed out to her campaign,” he added.
“She is clearly going to face a spirited re-election campaign, ... and she is looking for creative ways to use one of her strongest advantages as a candidate, which is her national fundraising network,” Marion said.
Raimondo’s campaign has a balance of over $3.3 million, significantly greater funds than those raised by her gubernatorial opponent Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, according to Rhode Island Public Radio.
Had Raimondo been a federal employee, her agreement with Ward would have been prohibited, since federal employees are barred from engaging in partisan activities under the Hatch Act of 1939, Marion said.
“You don’t want government employees to feel that they have to support candidates in order to maintain their jobs,” Marion said. “If you want a professional bureaucracy, it shouldn’t be subject to the whims of partisan politics.”
Raimondo’s office could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.