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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Did state Senator Elaine Morgan abuse her public office?

Hopkinton refuses to release documents on charges that Morgan impersonated a police officer
By Will Collette
Morgan at her dry-cleaning store.

On October 30, just days before the November 4 general election, I received an e-mail with a copy of a posting that had been made to WJAR Channel 10’s Facebook page. 

The posting included a screenshot of a redacted Hopkinton Police report on a complaint against then Hopkinton Town Sergeant and candidate for state Senate, District 34 Elaine Morgan (R) that she had used her position to impersonate a police officer.

Senate District 34 includes most of Charlestown north of Route One, as well as Hopkinton, Richmond, Exeter and a piece of West Greenwich.

The person who posted this, “Boscoe Roads” (a name that appears to be fake), also claimed that “numerous” other complaints had been filed against Morgan with the Hopkinton Town Manager and the Hopkinton Police.

Here is that Facebook posting:

Since this information came out so close to the election, there was no time to check it out before November 4.

Morgan pulled off an offset and won the Senate seat over incumbent Senator Cathie Cool Rumsey (D). Now that Morgan was going to the State House to represent Charlestown's portion of District 34, it seemed pretty important to check out these charges.

On November 17, I filed a request with the Hopkinton Town Clerk under the RI Access to Public Records Act (APRA) for reports of complaints filed against Morgan with the Town of Hopkinton.

On November 24, Hopkinton Town Clerk Elizabeth Cook-Martin totally denied my request, citing four sections of the APRA that dealt with the privacy rights of public employees and the confidentiality of investigations.

She also stated “there does not appear to be any legitimate public interest present”.

OK, I believe in privacy and so on, but Elaine Morgan was not a town employee but was instead an elected official. Her actual job was as owner-operator of a dry-cleaner in Ashaway. And the state's open records law isn't supposed to shield elected officials from public scrutiny of their conduct in office.

She ran as an endorsed Republican for the Town Sergeant seat which, by the way, did not make her a member of the police department although the Facebook posting alleged she posed as one.  

As called for under the APRA, I filed a detailed appeal with Hopkinton Town Manager William McGarry on December 6. I noted the flaws in the Town Clerk’s denial, i.e. that she was invoking sections of the law that didn’t apply to an elected official and others that didn't apply to this situation.

I also argued there is an overwhelming public interest in the public knowing whether an elected official committed such a serious offense as impersonating a police officer, especially since she has now moved up to such an important position as state senator.

I argued that the public has the right to see the complaints, appropriately redacted to protect the complainants or whistleblowers, and the right to see how Hopkinton dealt with those complaints.

McGarry denied my appeal on December 11 without addressing any of the points I had made except to note that, as far as he could tell, the police report that was posted on Facebook was not released under any open records request. He did basically confirm that there are records of complaints about Elaine Morgan, but he agreed with his Town Clerk’s decision not to release them publicly.

Well, I didn’t really expect the Town of Hopkinton to roll over even though I feel their interpretation of the APRA is wrong. But the law says the first appeal should go to the top municipal executive so that step was completed.

I took the next step on December 17 and filed a complaint against the Town of Hopkinton with the state Attorney General’s office and that complaint was acknowledged by Special Assistant Attorney General Lisa Pinsonneault who handles open government complaints for Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.

Here is Morgan (right) impersonating a public official authorized to
administer oaths by "swearing in" CCA Party's Town Council
Boss Tom Gentz at the CCA Party's phony swearing in ceremony on
November 17. By law, she did not have authority to do this until she was
sworn in in January.
It is now up to the Town of Hopkinton to make its arguments to justify its denial of the records and then for the Attorney General’s office to make a decision. 

As of today, January 15, the Town has not filed an answer to my complaint.

In the meantime, the charges against newly sworn-in state Senator Elaine Morgan, one of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance’s new legislative buddies, are hanging out there in cyberspace, unrefuted. 

All we now know for certain is that very serious complaints were brought against her but we don’t know how the Town of Hopkinton handled those complaints.

Were those complaints fully investigated or were they covered up? Did Morgan impersonate an officer or was she innocent? 

In my opinion, this is not just a case of the public’s right to know, but if Morgan was found blameless or the charges were deemed “not actionable,” she has a self-interest in clearing her name.

Indeed, the town's stonewalling only makes this affair seem more suspicious. If the town had released the requested records and those records showed no indication of wrong-doing, I wouldn't be writing this article.

But if Morgan did indeed abuse her office while in Hopkinton, the electorate needs to know that. 

It sure would have been better if all this could have been settled before voters turned out a fine incumbent senator in Cathie Cool Rumsey for a person who, even without these unresolved questions, has dubious qualifications for high office. But better late than never.