With Ruggerio’s arrest, the Senate gives the House a run for its money
When five state representatives ran into various kinds of legal trouble last year, there was chatter around the Statehouse about how the state Senate looked good by comparison.
The Senate now figures in the mix with the arrest Wednesday of 63-year-old Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, a longstanding power on Smith Hill, on a late-night charge of operating under the influence.
Yet even before the headline-grabbing arrest this week of a prominent legislative leader, the Senate was hardly immune from legal entanglements and other lapses:
— In 1998, Senate Majority Leader Paul S. Kelly pleaded no contest to a charge of assaulting his wife.
— Kelly was deposed in 2000 by William Irons, who took on the reform mantle typical of new legislative leaders. In 2003, Irons became the first Senate president (a post previously held by the lieutenant governor), but he abruptly left office at year’s end amid questions about conflicts with his private insurance work for CVS and Blue Cross & Blue Shield. By using a best-defense-is-a-strong-offense strategy, Irons helped neuter the Rhode Island Ethics Commission’s oversight of the General Assembly.
— Irons was succeeded as Senate president by Joseph Montalbano. In 2007, Montalbano paid $12,000 to settle an ethics case without admitting wrongdoing; the initial complaint centered on how Montalbano didn’t file disclosures of legal work he’d done for West Warwick while the town was considered as a potential casino site. Montalbano is now a District Court magistrate and receives a hero’s welcome when he returns to the Statehouse.
— Two of the three most recent cases of lawmakers going to prison involve the Senate: John Celona, for corruption, and Christopher Maselli for bank fraud. On the House side, former majority leader Gerry Martineau went to prison for corruption.
If there’s a plus side, as House Speaker Gordon Fox has noted, the legal troubles of the five state reps last year didn’t stem from their work as lawmakers. Yet the flurry of recent cases of public officials getting arrested does little to bolster public confidence in government — especially when Rhode Island continues its perennial struggle for more jobs and a better economy.
To some observers, the cluster of arrests is a symptom of a dysfunctional Statehouse culture: too many late nights, too much drinking at fancy boites, and too much time away from home.
State Democratic Chairman Ed Pacheco, a former state rep from Burrillville, rejects the view of a problematic legislative culture. Speaking during an appearance this week on RIPR’s Political Roundtable, he attributed the jams to normal human failings.
Perhaps it’s true, as Roundtable panelist Maureen Moakley suggested, that lawmakers’ troubles — swept under the rug in a bygone era — are now reported for all to see.
And so it goes, with the inevitable chicken and egg question: do lawmakers’ misdeeds turn off the public, or does a tuned-out public get the political leadership it deserves?