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Gordon Fox: Financial Problems at the Apex of Political Power in RI

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Former House speaker Gordon Fox faces at least three years in federal prison after pleading guilty Tuesday to three charges of corruption. The details...

Investigators collecting evidence on March 20, 2014.

Former House speaker Gordon Fox faces at least three years in federal prison after pleading guilty Tuesday to three charges of corruption. The details in the case became public almost one year after a state-federal raid triggered Fox’s departure as House speaker.

 Fox’s lawyer, William Murphy, stood next to his client on the grey stone steps of the federal courthouse in what’s become a Rhode Island political ritual – a perp walk for another politician facing corruption charges. Murphy points out his client chose to plead guilty.

"He did accept responsibility," Murphy said. "He waived indictment. He saved the prosecutative authorities the trouble of going through with an indictment …. We hope that Mr. Fox can put this behind him and that it be a lesson for people."

This being Rhode Island, Fox’s lawyer is the same guy who preceded him as speaker, a position often called the state’s most powerful political post. Fox choked up a bit while entering his guilty plea. After the arraignment, he responded to a few questions from reporters, who asked whether Fox felt remorse.

"Absolutely, that goes without question," Fox said.

There’s also no question that Fox will serve prison time. The charges against him come with a maximum 33-year sentence for bribery, tax fraud and misusing campaign funds. Under a plea deal, Fox could receive just three years. He nearly broke down when asked whether he would apologize ahead of his sentencing on June 11.

“And I don’t want to feel callous to any of the people of the state of Rhode Island, any donors, including the people close to me, the people that looked up to me, like family,' Fox said, his voice cracking with emotion. "I mean, it’s tough.”

Gordon Fox grew up as the biracial son of an Irish father and a Cape Verdean mother in the hardscrabble Mount Hope section of Providence. He scooped ice cream at a Carvel shop at University Plaza and graduated from Rhode Island College before going on to law school.

In 1992, Fox was part of a large incoming class of lawmakers in the House of Representatives. He worked his way up the hierarchy, becoming majority leader in 2003 and then ascending to the speakership in 2010.

But Fox’s place at the pinnacle of power came crashing down when state and federal investigators raided his East Side home and Statehouse office last March. The probe led Fox to quickly resign as speaker. US Attorney Peter Neronha declined to say precisely when the investigation of Fox began, but he says the raid turned up important information.

"In the course of following that money trail, we discovered that in 2008 former speaker Fox accepted a $52,000 bribe while serving as an appointed member of the Providence Board of Licenses," Neronha said.

Neronha says after getting the bribe, Fox pushed for a liquor license for the Shark Sushi Bar and Grill on Thayer Street, over the opposition of some neighbors.

Neronha says Fox also used $108,000 in campaign contributions to pay for personal expenses, including car payments, a bill from Tiffany’s jewelry store, and the mortgage on his plush East Side home. The third charge against Fox involves filing false tax information. State and federal investigators say the case should serve as a warning to other politicians that public corruption will be prosecuted.

“What really befuddles me is that they haven’t realized we’re not going away," said Vincent Lisi, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office. "If you are a corrupt public official, the boys in the band are going to get back together, and we’re gonna come and we’re gonna get you, track you down and make sure you’re brought to justice.”

Fox’s successor as speaker, Nicholas Mattiello, and other political leaders expressed disappointment in Fox, and said public officials must uphold high ethical standards. But when it comes to discouraging corruption, John Marion of the good government group Common Cause says the state could do more. He says the Providence Licensing Board that hands out liquor licenses may have too much discretion. And he says auditing even just a small percentage of candidates’ campaign finance reports could bolster integrity in the political system.

"Currently, the Board of Elections does not routinely examine those, only if there’s some sort of complaint or red flag," Marion said. "And we need to resource them better. They have a very small department to do this work, and they need some more resources to do this."

They need more resources because the Board of Elections has just two people in its campaign finance department. And while these are the first criminal charges filed against Fox, there were signs of problems much earlier. Fox climbed to the apex of political power in Rhode Island, but he never assembled a lucrative legal practice like his predecessor, William Murphy, who is now his lawyer and a successful lobbyist. The state Ethics Commission levied fines against him in two earlier cases.  

The first of those cases was settled in 2004. Fox was fined again 10 years later, this time for failing to disclose income from a city agency. By that time, the federal investigation that resulted in corruption charges was already underway.

Gordon Fox: Financial Problems at the Apex of Political Power in RI
Gordon Fox: Financial Problems at the Apex of Political Power in RI