Talking Politics

Revelations show ugly behavior from state officials in Philly trip

By Ian Donnis
Posted 6/12/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: The floodgates opened last week on the problematic visit by two high-level state Department of Administration officials to Philadelphia in March. Attorney General Peter Neronha …

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Talking Politics

Revelations show ugly behavior from state officials in Philly trip

Posted

STORY OF THE WEEK: The floodgates opened last week on the problematic visit by two high-level state Department of Administration officials to Philadelphia in March. Attorney General Peter Neronha sided with media organizations, ruling that an email outlining Scout Ltd.’s view of what happened was a matter of public interest. After staunchly opposing the release of the email, Gov. Dan McKee’s team abruptly shifted, providing the document to reporters. Everett Abitbol, Scout’s director of development, wrote that the Rhode Islanders’ visit left him wondering “how to work with people who are so blatantly racist, sexist and unprofessional.”

David Patten, head of the state property management division, is accused of making sexually suggestive remarks to a top Scout official. According to Abitbol, Patten and Jim Thorsen, director of the state DOA at the time, were offensive and imperious, allegedly making various demands as necessary to win $55 million in state funding for the renovation of the Cranston Street Armory. Thorsen, who left in April for a job with the U.S. Treasury Department, declined comment on the email, citing an ongoing investigation. Patten was placed on paid leave after returning from Philadelphia, with his lawyer saying his client was suffering from acute stress. For now, Scout – which did not get funding in the state budget to remake the Cranston Street Armory – remains interested in pursuing the project. Gov. McKee has said little publicly about the trip to Philadelphia by Patten and Thorsen, which, according to Abitbol, “reflects incredibly poorly on the state of Rhode Island and their leadership.” 

REACTION: Here’s how some elected officials responded to revelations about the Philadelphia story, via statements.

State Sen. Sam Bell (D-Providence): “No public official should extort items such as alcohol, vegan cheese, hand-blown glass, a pair of sneakers, and a private meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant that had to be opened specially for the occasion …. We must also consider the appearance of impropriety. It sends the wrong message if funding for a project suddenly does not appear when a vendor chooses to report extortion by an administration official through the appropriate channels. It is critical that potential state contractors know they will be treated fairly. State contractors need to know that they are not breaking any unwritten rules if they report extortion, and they will not receive any retaliation if they speak up about impropriety.”

State Rep. Enrique Sanchez (D-Providence): “I constantly hear it from our neighborhood small businesses in Providence. Many businesses run and staffed by people of color experience racially insensitive comments, and they don’t like it. Many women who work in businesses across our state report receiving comments from men that are not appropriate in a workplace context. Some businesses feel like they have to give free favors to powerful state officials, and they don’t like it. The allegations about how the McKee administration treated Scout, the state vendor for the Cranston Street Armory project, are exactly what is wrong with the broken culture of business and politics in our state.”

State Sen. Ana Quezada (D-Providence): “The way these officials behaved in Philadelphia is disgusting and once again calls into question Gov. McKee's judgment in selecting the top people in his administration. I'm calling on Director Patten to resign and the McKee administration to release any and all communications with State staff and officials about their decision to cover up this situation. Rhode Islanders deserve to know what went on behind closed doors that enabled this to be withheld from the public for so long. It's disturbing that in 2023, cronyism and corruption are still the image that Rhode Island is showing to the rest of the country. It hurts our reputation, our economy, and our faith in government. Rhode Islanders deserve leaders who are transparent, honest, and actually use their office to serve the public good.”

State Rep. David Morales (D-Providence), via Twitter: “David Patten should resign. He should NOT be receiving an annual salary of $175,000 made up of tax-payer dollars along with benefits. Now just imagine if a worker earning minimum wage behaved like this, they’d be fired immediately.

Gov. McKee: “While we cannot provide specific comments as the HR and RISP investigations are ongoing, the allegations regarding Mr. Patten’s behavior, if true, are disturbing, unacceptable and unfitting of anyone, especially an employee representing the state and who expects to be employed by the state. This behavior prompted our Administration to initiate and request the investigations, and we will have more to say once the process comes to a close.”

 

ELECTION INTEGRITY: The Electronic Registration Information Center, better known as ERIC, is considered one of the best ways to guard against voter fraud. But after the Gateway Pundit, which has promoted conspiracy theories, began writing about ERIC in January 2022, eight GOP-controlled states have pulled out of it. An investigation by NPR’s Miles Parks found that local “election integrity” groups have played a significant role in attempting to discredit ERIC. As I reported in March, a Rhode Island-based group contends the state 2020 election was marred by problems, and it links with a host of conspiracy theories.

MEDIA: The walkout by workers at Gannett newspapers this week underscored concerns about cost-cutting and diminished news coverage. Employees at the Providence Journal and other local Gannett papers did not walk out, although some expressed solidarity. Although 1997 might as well be a million years ago in media-years, insiders expressed concern back then that selling the ProJo to Belo would set off an inevitable shrinking of the newsroom. Cuts happened slowly at first and then accelerated after Belo sold the paper in 2014. Suffice it to say that this week’s labor action is a long way from 1973, when a 13-day strike at the ProJo ushered in decades of labor peace and gave birth to the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies as a way of healing rifts. Most incredibly, the late, great Jack White, the father of WPRI-TV’s Tim White, kept in his pocket an eventual Pulitzer winning story – about Richard Nixon cheating on taxes – while participating in the strike.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE: A GOP-backed proposal -- to double, to $2,000, the amount that can be contributed, per candidate, in a calendar year – is sparking sharp debate. Critics say this will elevate the influence of money in politics. But supporters, including House sponsor Rep. Brian C. Newberry (R-North Smithfield), say they would not support the move if it further strengthened the hand of the Democrats who rule Smith Hill. This bill should make for a lively floor debate if it hits the House floor this week.

 

TAKES OF THE WEEK – a mix of views from various Rhode Islanders.

Alan Krinsky, director of research and fiscal policy for the Economic Progress Institute: “The proposed budget going to the House floor maintains funding for many critical programs and contains some important investments, including in affordable housing and early childhood education, yet overall the budget lacks sufficient bold, new investments in low-income and modest-income Rhode Islanders. The budget lacks even moderate proposals to increase equity by improving Rhode Island Works cash assistance or public transportation programs. New funding benefiting low-income workers, which are disproportionately women and people of color, includes a 1% increase in the state Earned Income Tax Credit to 16% of the federal credit; this average annual increase of $22.50 per worker still leaves us far behind our New England neighbors, with state credits ranging from 25%-38% of the federal credit. Looking at the broader legislative picture, even popular measures that have little or no impact on the budget, like ending predatory, payday lending (Congress banned this for the military 15 years ago) or strengthening paid family leave are having a hard time getting committee votes. We applaud leadership for investing $7 million in child care programs and early educators and not including measures that would disproportionately benefit those with the highest incomes and increase disparities like a sales tax or estate tax cut. With federal pandemic aid and budget surpluses coming to an end, now is the time to plan ahead for generating sustainable revenue, by increasing personal income taxes on the top 1% which would increase equity and tax fairness.”

Filmmaker DANTE BELLINI: “ ‘Sometimes, you have to let go to get through.’ That is the line I wrote for the poster about my new short documentary “Demons & Dragans” -- Mark Patinkin’s Cancer Journey. And it is the seminal lesson of Mark’s ordeal and my film. When Mark was diagnosed with kidney cancer he knew, intellectually, that he had a fight on his hands. He was not special. Cancer is an insidious beast that affects all of us. The patients, families, caregivers, friends and more. However, it was Mark’s emotional and psychological fight that turned out to be the more brutal battle. It was also why his son Zachary fortified him with the Dylan Thomas poem, “Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night …” . “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Mark, like many others, endured the waiting, worrying, sleeplessness, the diagnosis, surgery, the recovery, the numerous follow-ups, and then even more waiting, more worrying and suddenly a new finding. Meaning more and new drugs and the requisite scans. This was his new reality, inside a medical machine that is both monstrous and necessary. But as much as my film is about Mark’s cancer, and his medical odyssey, it also is not. It is about a man facing his own mortality, and at first shrinking into himself and expecting to fall off every cliff along his journey. But he did not. He came to realize that if he was to survive, physically, psychologically, and emotionally, he had to let go of his death grip -- on death. And focus on life. Focus on his good life, his great kids and family and his fulfilling and important work. Believing that he did indeed have the heart and fortitude to make it through. Cancer may win some battles, but not every battle. That is what my film is about. A regular guy who discovered that it is never too late to change; and that the resilience of the human spirit is equal to the scars of the fight.”

State Sen. Tiara Mack (D-Providence): “This week, AG Neronha and the state Department of Health filed one of the most important complaints related to tenant rights in recent RI memory, against Pioneer Investment and its landlord, Anurag Sureka. The majority of this legislative session, I have focused on advancing tenants’ rights in our state and released a six-bill package of Tenant Rights legislation. Our landlord tenant laws have not seen a major upgrade since 1986 and have serious enforcement gaps, leaving many renting families vulnerable to living in inhabitable rental units. While we have focused on housing this session, led by the House Speaker announcing a 14-bill housing package back in March, only one of those bills was geared toward renters (banning rental application fees). There are over 159,000 renter households in our state and very few know their rights as renters or have the support of state and municipal governments when attempting to hold their landlords accountable. The AG's filing is a beacon of hope for renters and housing organizers and provides us a solid foundation for the next legislative session agenda. Tenants and tenant’ rights should be happening in the same conversation as housing production and we now have local and national headlines to support this work in the future.”

JENNIFER HAWKINS, president and executive director of One Neighborhood Builders: “For those of us who care passionately that everyone deserves safe, affordable, and stable housing, the 2024 budget should be considered a win. While I would have certainly liked to have seen more funding assigned to housing production, it is commendable that the speaker allocated $10 million above and beyond the governor’s supplemental budget proposal. A budget is a moral document and by maintaining current sales tax levels and making smart investments in ‘upstream’ social determinants of health -- such as quality housing -- Rhode Island is making a statement. Now we must ensure these housing dollars are spent on projects that will truly serve our lowest income neighbors, especially persons who are unhoused, and it will be incumbent upon Secretary Pryor and the Housing Department to quickly build a process that accomplishes that goal. A budget is clearly also an economic document. According to the recent analysis ONE Neighborhood Builders’ commissioned Faulkner Associates to complete, we know that Medicaid costs dropped 43% among RI Medicaid members who had access to our permanent supportive housing compared with other Medicaid members who remained in shelters. We can’t let our foot off the gas -- let’s get resources out the door and recognize the same level of investment is required annually to move RI out of this housing crisis.” 

CITY HAUL: As part of the process to remake the comprehensive plan guiding the future of Providence, an open house will be held Thursday, June 22. As planners know, the comp plan is a big deal. More information about the process can be found here. “Providence is uniquely positioned to grow into a world class city that people are excited to visit, work in, and proud to call home,” Mayor Brett Smiley said in a statement. “It is fundamentally important the framework we develop to grow our city over the next ten years is guided by a collaborative vision from our community and stays true to the qualities that make Providence unique.”

EARLY VOTING: The RI GOP is putting its support behind ‘Bank the Vote,’ a national effort to counter Democrats’ advantage in early voting. “To win in 2024, Republicans need to beat the Democrats at their own game,” tweeted state Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung (R-Cranston). “Pledge to vote early and do your part in retiring Joe Biden & stopping the soft on crime extreme left.”

KICKER: Paula Bontempi, dean of URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, was among members of NASA’s Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena Independent Study team who gathered for the group’s public discussion, on May 31. A full report is due this summer. After 18 years at NASA, Bontempi said the space agency is well suited to lead an inquiry into what some people call UFOs. “NASA is primarily a science-driven agency,” she said in a release from URI.” It’s committed to exploring air and space, and this includes the unknown, whether that’s the farthest reaches of the universe or here on our home planet. In that light, NASA has over 60 years of experience measuring phenomena in air and space …. NASA also has a long-standing public trust. This is essential to communicate those findings to the public, and very important in efforts to destigmatize the reporting and raise awareness of cultural and social barriers to doing so.”

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org

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