Former House Speaker Gordon Fox, who made a trip from the hardscrabble streets of Mount Hope to the pinnacle of political power in Rhode Island, was sentenced Thursday to serve three years in prison after being convicted of bribery, wire fraud and tax evasion.
A contrite Fox intermittently choked up while apologizing to his friends, family and the people of Rhode Island during a sentencing hearing conducted by US District Court Judge Mary Lisi.
"I offer a heartfelt genuine apology," Fox, 53 told the judge. He expressed disappointment in himself, saying his late mother taught him the importance of right and wrong.
"I have no excuses," Fox continued. "All I can explain is greed, keeping up with the Joneses." The former lawmaker, known for his one-time East Side home, an affection for Audis, and dining out at top local restaurants, also likened himself to a fish chasing shiny objects.
Describing himself as unable to help himself when he ran into fiscal trouble, Fox -- turning toward federal prosecutors in court -- said the state and federal investigators who raided his home and Statehouse office in March 2014 "were actually on a rescue mission, and I thank them for it."
Lisi called the 36-month sentence recommended by prosecutors appropriate, but after 20 years on the bench, she also expressed skepticism about whether it will be enough to deter other Rhode Island public officials from committing corrupt acts.
Fox pleaded guilty to corruption charges in March. Lisi said factors influencing his sentence include how Fox doesn't have a criminal history and how he pleaded guilty to the most serious charge, bribery, even though the statute of limitations had already expired.
In a statement reminiscent of how former US District Court Judge Ernest Torres in 2002 likened Buddy Cianci to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Lisi said it was hard to understand how a 22-year lawmaker known as a compassionate person could commit public corruption.
"It's very difficult to reconcile who the real Gordon Fox is," Lisi said, adding that it was not her role to do that. Rather, Lisi said, Fox "is going to have to figure that out himself."
Fox's lawyer, former speaker William Murphy, told Lisi that Fox's criminal acts began when he felt overwhelmed by bills and turned to his campaign contributions to help pay for his lifestyle.
Asked what was going through his mind when he did corrupt things, Fox said outside court, "I wonder, not much, stupidity. I mean, I clearly was not thinking. Whether it's the pressure or whatever of dealing with a lot of situations ... But again, I did it. I have to stand up, take responsibility, learn from it, be a better person ... and continue try to be who I am, trying to be the person that cares about people, cares about this state, is concerned for people's well-being .... But I know that this taints -- as the judge talked about -- a lot of the 22 years that I've done [at the General Assembly] and a lot of the good work that I think I've done."
Fox was also ordered to pay $109,000 in restitution, and to work with the IRS to back his outstanding back taxes. Judge Lisi told Fox to report to a federal prison chosen by the Bureau of Prisons by 2 pm on July 7, and said he will be considered an escapee if his misses the deadline. She said she'll request that he be housed at a prison near Rhode Island.
"I want to take responsibility and do as much right in this bad situation, as I can by the people of this state," Fox told reporters outside court. He conceded his actions have fostered cynicism about government and fostered a sense of betrayal. "I feel terrible about that."
Asked if there were other bribes beyond the one case in which he was convicted, Fox said, "No." He declined comment on whether he was cooperating with investigators.
Speaking on the courthouse steps following sentencing, in a time-honored Rhode Island ritual, prosecutors said they will remain vigilant in trying to prosecute corruption. US Attorney Peter Neronha and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, who attended the sentencing, said the case in which Fox took bribes from people associated with the Shark Bar on Thayer Street remains under review.
Neronha and Kilmartin said they agreed with Lisi that a three-year sentence for Fox may not deter corrupt acts by other public officials.
“The message is, though," Kilmartin said, "that the judicial system and the prosecutors are still vigilant, that when corruption surfaces we will be there to prosecute, and we will hold people accountable. And that’s a portion of the government that folks can have confidence in.”
This story has been updated.