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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

CCA blind spot on ethics

CCA Party-backed Charlestown officials violate state ethics law
By Will Collette
For more cartoons by P.S. Mueller, click here
Three CCA Party-endorsed winners in the November 4 election failed to disclose all the information required under law to the RI Ethics Commission. 

Those three are Council members Denise Rhodes and Bonnita Van Slyke and Planning Commission member Barbara Heavers.

In addition to filing campaign finance reports with the Board of Elections, candidates for elected office must also file FS-1 ethics disclosure forms with the state Ethics Commission to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interests and to give the public the right to see details about public officials’ public, business and private interests.

While some might think their finances are nobody's business, it is the price you must pay if you seek a position of political power. 

The Ethics Commission Form FS-1 is pretty simple and unambiguousCertainly any person who wants to serve on the Town Council or Planning Commission will have to deal with documents that are far more complicated and challenging. Most officials who are required to submit FS-1 forms seem to do so with relative ease.

But not three of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance sponsored candidates in the 2014 election.

I filed complaints against three of them. I alleged that new CCA Party Town Councilor Denise Rhodes never filed a report at all. And I alleged that her fellow CCAers Councilor Bonnie Van Slyke and Planning Commission Barbara Heavers failed to report properties they own other than their primary residences and didn't disclose what is in their trust funds.

After I filed those three complaints, Ms. Heavers and Ms. Van Slyke both filed responses with the Ethics Commission admitting they left off additional properties they owned and did not fully describe the contents of their trust funds. They both filed amended reports that added those missing details.

There was no response from Ms. Rhodes but I did get a copy of the Ethics Commission’s finding that there was probable cause that Ms. Rhodes violated the state Ethics Law which is the step the Commission takes before prosecuting an errant politician. After I filed a similar complaint after the 2012 election against Republican candidate for House District 36, Tina Jackson, I received a similar finding from the Ethics Commission.

In that finding, the Commission noted that Ms. Jackson had finally submitted an FS-1 and had paid a $100 fine. However, there was no such detail in the finding on Ms. Rhodes, so I figure she still hasn’t filed. Usually, that leads to formal legal action by the Ethics Commission.

Ms. Heavers was the quickest of the three to respond and make the necessary corrections. In her response, she claimed she misunderstood the requirements so her omissions were inadvertent. She asked that either the complaint be dropped or that no fines be levied.

I notified the Commission that I accepted her explanation and was OK with letting the matter go without a fine. However, it did concern me that she had trouble understanding the FS-1 form, given the kind of paperwork she will have to read and comprehend as a member of the Planning Commission.

Plus, it bothered me that the more experienced members of the CCA Party didn’t guide her and her rookie colleagues through the thicket of filing requirements for candidates for elected office. CCA Party leaders like Boss Tom Gentz, Planning Commissar Ruth Platner and CCA Party Treasurer Dan Slattery have filed these reports every year for quite a number of years.

Ms. Van Slyke, through her lawyer, made a similar argument. The form is complicated, the instructions ambiguous, her omissions were inadvertent and she has filed an amended FS-1. But then she took a step too far and insisted that my complaint be dismissed out of hand because of her “good faith” compliance.

In this instance, I filed an objection with the Commission to Ms. Van Slyke’s request that my complaint be dismissed. I noted that doing the right thing after you’ve been caught does not equal “good faith.” Apparently, the Commission also isn’t satisfied with Ms. Van Slyke’s response, based on this finding I received from the Commission.

OK, so what?

It’s a reasonable question to ask why any of this matters. After all, the CCA Party swept into office in 2014, taking every open elected office, and giving the CCA Party the right to run Charlestown for the fourth straight term.

Well, the first reason why these ethics breaches matter is that the CCA Party is not above the law, even though they may think so.

CCA Party Town Council member Denise Rhodes has flouted the law completely and could be hit with a misdemeanor charge carrying a $1000 and one-year jail sentence.

Then there’s the question of the two others who say they couldn’t understand these instructions:

If they can't understand this, how will they cope with the documents they will routine have to handle in their new town positions?

Second, while the main source of their money is the truckload of out-of-state campaign money they get, at least part of the reason for the CCA Party’s success at the polls is the image it has created for itself. Despite actions to the contrary, they claim the moral and ethical high ground. These ethics breaches simply provide more evidence of the gulf between what the CCA says and what the CCA actually does.

Among the CCA Party’s “stars” is Ron Areglado who claims to be our local guru on the subject of ethics and morality, even to the point of claiming he is “president” of a non-existent organization, the “Center for Ethical and Moral Leadership.”

Incidentally, if this “Center” actually did do what he claims it does on his official CCA Party resume, then he violated the state ethics law by failing to disclose it on his own ethics disclosure report

That raises this ethical dilemma: did Areglado lie on his CCA Party resume or did he lie on his Ethics Disclosure report?
This is what Ron Areglado listed on his official CCA Party resume. If this "Center" actually exists and does what Areglado says it does, he would have to disclose it to the Ethics Commission. He did NOT list it on his disclosure report. So which is the lie? His CCA resume? Or his Ethics report? They can't both be true.

Third, the CCA Party claims it believes in competent, transparent government yet it ran candidates who claim they couldn’t understand some pretty simple forms and who violated state laws on transparency.

Fourth, the voting public has the right to know what’s on the ethics disclosure forms because they give you an insight into what they truly believe in. So many issues Charlestown government has and will continue to face could involve the financial interests of the officials who will have to make those decisions.

BP, one of Boss Gentz's many interesting investments
For example, as Charlestown is about to go into a protracted battle over water rights, a look at Town Council Boss Tom Gentz’s disclosure report shows that he holds shares in American Water Works, one of America’s largest private water companies. While that may not trigger a recusal by Boss Gentz to avoid a conflict of interest, the fact that he has invested his money in a company that privatizes public water systems raises some questions about his motivation in dealing with Charlestown’s water issues.

Boss Gentz’s trust fund also is chock full of stocks in petro-chemical companies, mining companies and Wall Street predators. He even holds stock in Waste Management Inc., one of the most notorious waste disposal companies in the US[1].

What do the Ethics reports show?

The Ethics Commission doesn’t ask for much. They want disclosure of employment and business holdings of the public official and close family members, board and leadership positions, debts, real estate other than a home and trust funds. That last one is what tripped up Ms. Heavers and Van Slyke.

The Commission doesn’t ask about direct investments or bank accounts or IRAs – just trust funds that generate $1,000 or more in income. Trust funds are typically set up by high income or assets individuals to protect their money and reduce inheritance taxes for their heirs.

These are not the same as the “blind trusts” you often hear connected to some elected officials[2] where the trust is set up to avoid conflicts of interests in a more comprehensive way. The trusts held by CCA Party town officials are more of the estate-planning, tax-avoidance variety.

As such, the contents of these trusts show us some of the character of the person who made the investments. As noted, Town Council Boss Tom Gentz invests in private water and sewer treatment, petrochemicals, mining and predator banking which may explain some of the positions he has taken as a town leader.

Both Barbara Heavers and Bonnie Van Slyke have now disclosed investment holdings that also raise questions about whether their investments match their values.
Dupont - part of Barbara Heavers trust fund portfolio

For example, new Planning Commission member Barbara Heavers owns shares in lots of tech and banking companies, but also a number of petrochemical[3], Big Box and mass retailers[4] and construction companies[5]

As a Planning Commission, she may have to act on matters that relate to these types of activities, if not these exact companies. If McDonalds wanted to set up in Charlestown, she would have to recuse herself because she holds their stock.

Ms. Van Slyke and her husband own a share of a “stripper” oil well in Kansas as well as natural gas stock. At the height of the debate over the proposed Whalerock wind turbine farm, John Van Slyke wrote a letter to Progressive Charlestown, which we published here, blasting me for advocating that the town end the Whalerock crisis by buying the land where the controversial project was to be built.

A typical stripper oil well like the one owned by the Van Slykes
Yes, this was one of those instances where Planning Commissioner Ruth Platner and I were on the same side – buy the land for open space and end the angst on the moraine. This ultimately became the CCA Party’s position and it was what Charlestown did to end the Whalerock flap.

So why was John Van Slyke so dead set against it? I wish I had known at the time about the Van Slyke’s investments in fossil fuels. And actually, I wish the voters did too before they elected Bonita Van Slyke to the Town Council.

The CCA Party has yet to learn that despite their total control of Charlestown government, there are still some rules they must follow, at least until they secede from the rest of the state.

Although the voters have yet to hold the CCA Party accountable for the vast gulf between their election rhetoric and their actual performance, that day will certainly come. In the meantime, we’ll keep digging and we’ll continue to provide you with the facts and perhaps this will hasten the CCA’s Day of Reckoning.


[1] American Water Works is one of the biggest private water companies, and they are also in the waste water treatment business. 

Boss Gentz holds shares in petrochemical companies including Northeast Utilities (former owner of the controversial Millstone Nuclear power plant), Total (Europe’s largest oil company), Xcel Energy, Dupont, British Petroleum (BP, of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill fame), General Electric (largest polluter of the Hudson River) and Merck. 

He owns shares in foreign mining companies – Kenmare Resources, PPL Group and West Wits Mining. And he holds lots of bankster stock. Some examples: Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Bank of America, GE Capital, HSBC, Prudential.

[2] For example, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has a “blind trust” set up precisely to wall himself off from even the appearance of conflict of interest. GoLocalProv jumped on Whitehouse’s trust as containing investments in companies that contribute to climate change. Whitehouse responded that he doesn’t even know what’s in his blind trust, thus the term “blind.” The trusts held by CCA members are more of the tax-avoidance, estate-planning variety.

[3] These include Abbott, Dupont, Exxon Mobil, GE, Spectra Energy, 3-M and Xcel Energy.

[4] Home Depot, Target and McDonald’s

[5] These include Caterpillar and Nucor.