The Journal Comes Out in Favor of Government Misbehavior

Rhode_Island_Convention_Center,_Providence_RI

The Rhode Island Convention Center; photo by John Phelan, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Two things can be true:

  • The RI Convention Center may need an audit.
  • Speaker Mattiello acted illegally by initiating an audit of the RI Convention Center Authority without first seeking a vote from the majority of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS).

Unfortunately, the Editorial Board at the Providence Journal has determined that it only cares about one of those things.

Though the state’s taxpayers pour tens of millions of dollars every year into its facilities, the Convention Center seems to be at war with the people of Rhode Island these days. Its board arrogantly voted it would not permit the state auditor to investigate its finances.

Unfortunately, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a Democrat, retreated on his request for such an audit when House Republican Leader Blake Filippi refused to join with him.

The Board’s presented version of events seems to go this way: the Speaker initiated an audit, the Convention Center board refused to comply, Filippi “refused to join him” and the Speaker then canceled the audit.

The problem is that the Board is twisting facts and omitting key others. Here’s the order of events as reported:

  1. A constituent/donor/friend/father of an employee of the Speaker’s was put on leave (along with another employee) by ASM Global, a private company that employs of the bulk of those working at the Convention Center and is separate from the quasi-public Convention Center Authority (WPRI, Convention Center hit with audit as House speaker’s friend placed on leave, published 1/15/20, last updated 1/22/20).
  2. The Speaker, acting as chair of the JCLS, orders state Auditor General Dennis Hoyle to initiate an audit of the Convention Center Authority, despite such audits usually being conducted in the executive branch’s Office of Internal Audit (same source as above).
  3. The Convention Center’s executive Director James McCarvill initially says they’ll comply (as above).
  4. It comes to light that the Speaker does not, in fact, have the ability under state law to order audits without a full vote of the JCLS. Filippi sues (WPRI, Mattiello cancels controversial audit after top RI House Republican sues, 1/23/20).
  5. The Convention Center Authority’s Board, having read the same news report, votes the next morning to not comply with the audit (as above).
  6. A few hours later, Mattiello cancels the audit (as above).
  7. The next day, the Convention Center Authority requests the State Police investigate why the audit was called (WPRI, Convention Center asks RI State Police to investigate Mattiello-ordered audit, 1/24/20).
  8. There’s a whole thing with “black mold” causing an evacuation of the JCLS office, and the RI State Police visiting a dumpster where stuff from the JCLS office was disposed that happens the following week (The Providence JournalTroopers search State House dumpster amid mold emergency, 1/28/20)
  9. The suspended ASM Global employee who is not a friend of the Speaker is negotiating the terms of leaving her employer (The Providence JournalAs state police begin probe, suspended R.I. Convention Center employee negotiates departure, 1/28/20)
  10. The state police question Convention Center board member Paul MacDonald. Mattiello is alleged to have spoken with MacDonald about his friend (WPRI, State police question Convention Center board member about Mattiello, 1/29/30)
  11. The Convention Center Authority calls on the state Department of Administration’s Office of Internal Audit to do its audit early, though the DOA is noncommittal. The Convention Center’s executive director also says they’re willing to do an audit with the Auditor General (WPRI, Convention Center asks for early audit amid Mattiello controversy, 1/31/20).
  12. The Speaker says he believes his friend had presented the Convention Center with a list of financial issues of concern prior to being suspended, and confirms that he spoke with MacDonald. He questions whether the Convention Center is in compliance with bond covenants, and says he would prefer the audit be done by the Auditor General. (The Providence Journal, Mattiello offers rationale for requesting audit of R.I. Convention Center, published 2/1/20, last updated 2/2/20).
  13. The mold was not “black mold” though the Speaker’s spokesman says they were just talking about the color, not the type of mold (The Providence Journal, Inspectors say mold at State House office mostly benign, 2/3/20).
  14. At some point in the days following Jan. 24, a grand jury is seated and issues subpoenas to the Convention Center employees and Mattiello’s staff (WPRI, Grand jury issues subpoenas amid Mattiello audit controversy, 2/4/20).
  15. Witnesses begin testifying to the grand jury (The Providence JournalFirst witnesses testify before R.I. Convention Center grand jury, 2/14/20).
  16. The Journal goes through its archive and reports on a 2015 report from the RI Republicans alleging misspending at the Convention Center. The DOA says the audit of the Convention Center is scheduled for Fall 2020 (The Providence JournalWATCHDOG REPORT: Questions about R.I. Convention Center spending have been raised before, 2/15/20).
  17. More witnesses go before the grand jury (The Providence Journal, 2 top Mattiello aides appear before Convention Center grand jury, published 2/19/20, last updated 2/20/20)
  18. ASM Global refuses to hand over the names, job titles, and earnings of possibly 1,800 employees to the Journal, saying it’s a private company and doesn’t disclose that information. Filippi objects to that rationale (The Providence Journal, Watchdog Team: Convention Center manager refuses to disclose names, pay of workers, 2/21/20).
  19. Filippi’s lawsuit is amended to included the state Controller and General Treasurer, alleging they usurped Filippi’s statutory rights by distributing JCLS funds that had been given out for legislative grants (The Providence Journal, R.I. GOP retools lawsuit to include controller, treasurer, published 2/21/20, last updated 2/22/20).
  20. McCarvill says that ASM Global is not required to comply with the Journal‘s APRA request as they’re not doing “public works.” AccessRI, the ACLU of RI, and Common Cause RI all question that interpretation of the law (The Providence Journal, Watchdog Report: R.I. Convention Center chief says contractors must disclose pay only in public works projects, 2/24/20).

I know that’s a lot, but Journal‘s Editorial Board is relying on the sheer amount of things that have happened since the audit was canceled to pull a fast one on the reader. Take the sentence that reads “the Convention Center seems to be at war with the people of Rhode Island these days.”

There is no reading of events that supports that. The Convention Center has consistently said they are willing to comply with any audit (in fact, asking for its audit to be done early), except one that was illegally ordered. No one could reasonably describe this as a state of “war.” If anything, it seems pretty compliant. All the Speaker needs to do to get his preferred audit is call a meeting of the JCLS (the first in nearly 11 years) and hold a vote.

Where there is conflict is where ASM Global refuses to allow potentially 1,800 employees to have their names and salaries published in the Providence Journal (notably, the Journal is not “the people of Rhode Island”). There are competing readings of the law here, McCarvill’s vs. the Journal‘s and the open government groups’. But that’s fairly easily solvable (the same way Filippi is seeking to solve this, with a lawsuit).

Since the Journal has conveniently forgotten it, let me remind you that the thing that started this all was an illegally ordered audit. It is not arrogance to demand our public officials follow the law. It is, in fact, the default behavior we should expect of them. It should horrify the people of Rhode Island that the Journal Editorial Board doesn’t see things that way.

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