Once again, a Rhode Island General Assembly member has been arrested.Rhode Island Public Radio's political analyst Scott MacKay on why the charges against Rep. Joseph Almeida don’t fit the usual pattern.
The Rhode Island state police have nabbed Providence State Rep. Almeida for allegedly misappropriating about $6,000 in campaign money for personal use.
Almedia says he is innocent of the charge, but he has stepped down from his position as House Deputy Majority Whip, a largely ceremonial post than nonetheless made him a member of Speaker Nick Mattiello’s Democratic leadership team.
State police say they found that Almeida, who represents one of the state’s poorest districts on Providence’s South Side, had withdrawn $6,478 in cash and checks from his campaign account between May and September of 2012, but was able to provide documentation for just $250 of that money.
What is notable in this case, as too often been the sad tradition in our small state, is how little money is at stake. The other element is that neither the state police nor the attorney general’s office have given even a hint about what Almeida did with the money that he has been charged with converting from his campaign to personal use.
Even as diligent a Statehouse ethical watchdog as John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, cautions against painting Almeida with the usual Rhode Island corruption brush.
"He’s not at all being accused of selling his office for anything," says Marion. "This isn’t even in the same category as John Celona" the North Providence senator who was famously convicted in 2007 of selling his office to the CVS Pharmacy chain and Roger Williams Hospital in exchange for almost $320,000.
What Almeida is charged with is pretty small stuff compared with the conga line of jammed up Ocean State politicians over the years, a dance that includes former Gov. Edward DiPrete, ex-House Majority Leader Gerard Martineau and onetime Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci. Or last year’s celebrated raid by state and federal agents on the State House suite of former House Speaker Gordon Fox. (No charges have been filed against Fox; a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office says that case remains under review.)
Another perspective: The $6,000 that Almeida is charged with converting to his personal use is less than the more than $7,000 Speaker Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, reported spending entertaining colleagues at the Capital Grille, just one of the fine Providence restaurants frequented by him and his leadership team.
So why go after Almeida? There are unconfirmed reports that he was cooperating with the state attorney general’s office. One wonders if he would been arrested had he walked into the AG’s office represented by a well-known criminal lawyer, such as ex-House Speaker William J. Murphy, Fox’s lawyer.
Campaign finance violations have long been winked at in our state. Nothing much happened to Providence City Council President Luis Aponte for violations of state campaign finance laws.
All that said, it is tough for a skeptical, even cynical, Rhode Island public to look askance at yet another jammed up state lawmaker. Too many at the Statehouse over the long and florid history of our state’s politics have broken their trust.
At the very least, voters expect that those who write the laws will obey them. In a democracy, government deserves legitimacy only if none of us is above the law. That’s why it won’t matter to a large slice of voters whether Almeida was guilty of just sloppy accounting or something worse.
If the campaign finance laws are too vague, well, it is imperative that the Assembly fix this. (Why not require the state Boards of Elections to perform random campaign finance report audits?) There is no time like the present for such a move. They have been in session for more than a month and haven’t done much of anything so why not address this?
Hopefully, what happened to Almeida sends a shiver through the Rhode Island political hierarchy. For way too long, our politicians have had scant regard for the spirit and letter of campaign finance regulations.
If Almeida’s troubles serve as a siren call for change, and wake lawmakers up to the need to take campaign laws seriously, then some good can emerge from what many of his colleagues think is one lawmaker’s raw deal.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 AM and 8:45 AM on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our On Politics blog.