A Hummel Report Investigation
Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt settled her complaint with the Rhode Island Ethics Commission this week by agreeing to pay a $750 fine for violating the nepotism clause of the state ethics code by hiring her teenage son for a summer job. But is the penalty stiff enough? Jim Hummel sits down with the commission’s chairman to discuss how the board reached its settlement with the mayor.
Cheit: ``Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, complaint number 2014-13….’’
Five months after readily admitting to us she had hired her son for a part-time summer job with the city, Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt admitted that was a violation of the nepotism clause in the state’s ethics code.
And to settle a complaint filed with the commission the day after a Hummel Report investigation first aired in October, the mayor agreed to pay a $750 fine. We learned this week that in late November she also wrote a personal check to reimburse the DPW for the $880 her son was paid by the city over six weeks last July and August.
After discussing the case in closed session the commission emerged to announce its unanimous decision to accept the settlement. We asked Chairman Ross Cheit about it later.
Hummel: ``$750 for what the level of offense was?’’
Cheit: ``Well I think part of how I would answer that would be in connection with the fact that $880 was paid back, so there is a way, okay you’ve paid back money, so there is not unjust enrichment; you’ve taken care of that and you’re paying a fine that’s almost the same amount on top of that. I think it’s a significant fine, we clearly have given higher fines, but I also think that higher fines are when we think that the violation is in larger dollar amount. This wasn’t’ a large dollar amount. And it was also a short period of time, she does not have any prior record with the commission. And the representations from our counsel were that she was both cooperative and remorseful. And we get people who are neither of those.
Hummel: ``Did you advertise those positions, how did the word get out?’’
Baldelli-Hunt: ``No it was not advertised, in the newspaper if that’s what you mean? No.’’
The mayor at first defended the hiring, during our interview and in several subsequent interviews with other media outlets - saying she was trying to help youngsters in Woonsocket, and to beautify the city at the same time. She later call it ``a misstep.’’
We learned from the written settlement accepted Tuesday that the function she talked about was a Legion baseball game her son and his teammates were playing in - and she offered them the jobs afterward, admitting the jobs were never publicly advertised.
Baldelli-Hunt, who never met with the commission and had her lawyer handle Tuesday’s meeting, stopped short of an apology in a statement she issued that afternoon.
``I understand that the residents of this City expect all of their elected officials, including their Mayor, to act and conduct themselves in an ethical and transparent matter. By agreeing to this settlement, I acknowledge that my actions did not live up to the requirements of the Ethics Code’’
18:11 JH So what would you say to the person maybe the person from the outside, $750 to me looks like a slap on the wrist. 18:21 RC First I’d say look around the country, I was given a talkin Oregon where the maximum the ethics commission can give is a $250 fine…:41 I think $750 when you think about other kinds of infractions. This is real money. This isn’t like a traffic ticket. And you add the $800 on top of that . I think it’s serious. I don’t think you can look at that and think it’s a slap on the wrist.:57
Last fall the mayor said she would ask the commission if it would be okay for her son to work in the program again this summer, if he went through a different hiring process. So far she has not asked the commission for an advisory opinion and did not return our call seeking comment.
19:167 I think we take the nepotism regulations very seriously. So the idea gee this is just one person for a month, ad it’s not very much money - it’s a black line, strick rule that you don’t take actions as a public official that benefit your relatives. If you do that you’ve violated the code and we take that seriously: 34
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.