Poli-ticks

Arlene Violet: Pass Attorney General Peter Neronha's grand jury legislation

By Arlene Violet
Posted 3/12/20

Attorney General Peter Neronha is again asking the legislature to give grand juries the power to issue reports on their findings in cases where there are no indictments but the public would benefit …

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Poli-ticks

Arlene Violet: Pass Attorney General Peter Neronha's grand jury legislation

Posted

Attorney General Peter Neronha is again asking the legislature to give grand juries the power to issue reports on their findings in cases where there are no indictments but the public would benefit from learning what was uncovered. His efforts followed a Pennsylvania grand jury which made its report detailing decades of sexual abuse of children by hundreds of priests public. His proposal has built in safeguards like court oversight and the right of a person named in the report to object to disclosure of his/her name and the right to appeal. At least 12 out of 23 grand jurors would have to “concur” on the findings and recommendations before the report would be submitted to the Presiding Justice of the Superior Court. The court would then determine if the report is based on the preponderance of the evidence and in the public interest.

This legislation is also an antidote to the disappointing decision by the Rhode Island Supreme Court to block the release of the 38 Studios grand jury documents. Without question there were public interest reasons, at least $120 million taxpayers’ dollars’ worth, to disclose the documents. My opinion is that the High Court blinked. For example, the Rhode Island State Police did a terrible job “investigating” what led to this fiasco and the court didn’t want to embarrass the department. More than one legislator told me of minimal conversation on the telephone where the legislator, unsworn, was asked if he knew anything. Two-three minutes later the “investigation” was concluded. Apparently, the Court was too reticent to embarrass legislators and their cronies as well.

While acquiescence in the future is also possible, at least the Neronha legislation would standardize scrutiny. The High Court and legislators should support it yet the protectionism which has shielded them from embarrassment still may be in play. How else would one explain the failure of this legislation to make it to a vote last year?

In 1985 a statewide grand jury ended its probe of the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation (RIHMFC) with a report “pointing to the 'rampant' misuse of funds and the failure of the Board to do its job." I was the then-Attorney General who asked then-Superior Court Chief Justice, Anthony Giannini, to release the report. He authorized its dissemination.

Because RIHMFC changed the application form for a low income based mortgage from an “under oath” attestation of income to an estimate, perjury could not be charged. Judges, bankers, political cronies and politicians with higher incomes raided the funds intended for lesser-income folks. Releasing the report led to reform. This same kind of nonsense in today’s environments may continue to be hidden unless a Grand Jury can make this determination.

My request back then was predicated on a federal precedent under a similar court rule. There is no reason why this legislation should be blocked. In light of the Rhode Island Supreme Court dissing an obvious situation of disclosure, that decision will have a chilling effect in future cases. The legislature owes it to the public to correct this deference to those in power by letting regular folks on a grand jury determine what should precipitate a request for disclosure.

Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.

Arlene Violet

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