Rhode Island Corruption, a Tale of Two Stop & Shops
From time to time, some insider or other will argue that Rhode Island isn’t all that corrupt and use arrest statistics or some similar measure as proof. Thankfully, those arguments are correct to the extent that we still find unique such stories as the three councilmen in North Providence who appear to have taken bribes to manipulate zoning laws on behalf of a proposed Stop & Shop.
But Providence Journal reporter Mike Stanton’s tale of another Stop & Shop, this one in Cranston, puts the spotlight on the more fundamental — and perfectly legal — political corruption that characterizes the state. Developer Richard Baccari has had trouble in the past gaining permission to accommodate the grocery chain on a particular lot near the Pawtuxet River, so for a second attempt, he sought to have the town redefine supermarkets, rather than provide a zoning variance. The more typical approach requires notice to neighbors; the new approach does not.
The corruption appeared when Baccari hired then-Speaker of the House Bill Murphy to get the ball rolling:
Murphy, who met with the mayor and his chief of staff, Ernie Carlucci, never showed them any plans, or identified the developer or the supermarket chain, says [former Mayor Michael] Napolitano. Murphy’s pitch was that the project would bring the financially struggling city much-needed jobs and tax revenue. …
A short time later, Napolitano’s city solicitor approached Councilman Richard Santamaria at City Hall and handed him a draft of the proposed ordinance. …
Santamaria represented the Fifth Ward in central Cranston, not the First Ward where the proposed Stop & Shop would be located. He also worked at the State House as a $53,000-a-year legislative aide. Before he introduced the ordinance, Santamaria says, he talked to the First Ward councilman, Terence Livingston, who also worked for Murphy as a part-time, $65,000-a-year legislative lawyer.
Note that Murphy doesn’t appear to have been actively involved, as a lawyer, other than in his capacity as behind-the-scenes advocate for the project, inasmuch as Baccari hired others separately to handle the details and appear in public.
Note, also, an “unintended consequence” whereby the change in zoning laws would have made violators of mom-and-pop stores in the city, based on a size minimum for “retail and service establishments.” New Mayor Allan Fung ensured that the law addressed that concern, but one thinks of the many seemingly obvious mistakes that occur in the shell game of Rhode Island law making. This one would conspicuously have been helpful to large chains. It’s surprising that the state’s top legislator, at the time, would not seek and spot such problems for constituents before advocating for a particular project.
Anybody who has given passing thought to running for local office has done the calculation of time investment versus benefit, and it’s difficult to make the scale tilt toward a campaign. Call it an “unintended consequence” that offices therefore fall to those with something to gain other than the direct rewards of public service.