Rhode Island has suffered from an inferiority complex dating back to colonial times, when Massachusetts minister Cotton Mather called it the “sewer of New England” and Connecticut tried to absorb the upstart colony. So it felt like just another blow this summer, when the former state House speaker landed in prison after pleading guilty to corruption- related charges.
First elected in 1992 and elevated to the state’s most powerful position in 2010, Gordon Fox had tip-toed through a series of scandals over the years — including an ethics fine, coziness with lobbyists and questions about his legal work for the City of Providence — before a federal corruption probe finally brought him down.
In June, Fox was sentenced to three years in prison after he admitted taking more than $50,000 in bribes from a Providence restaurant while serving on the city’s licensing board and using more than $100,000 in campaign money for personal expenses, including purchases at Tiffany’s and Urban Outfitters.
Reflecting on his downfall and the latest blow to Rhode Island’s tattered reputation, Fox quoted Hamlet at his sentencing – “thou canst not then be false to any man” – and added, “I hope this doesn’t create so much more cynicism that we keep good people [from] running for elected office.”
Sadly, Fox was not the only lawmaker to run afoul of the law this past year. In May, a state representative pleaded no contest to misusing campaign funds. He paid a $1,000 fine and resigned a leadership position, but remains in office.
The cases reflect a seedy political culture that persists despite some improvements to transparency in recent years, such as strengthening the open records law in 2012. It’s no surprise, then, that Rhode Island earned a grade of D+ in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. The state’s grade did rank it 5th best in the nation, but that speaks more to greater problems elsewhere than a tailwind of progress in the Ocean State.