PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Days after federal and state authorities raided the House speaker’s office at the Rhode Island Statehouse, there is still little known about why, or what they were looking for.
The U.S. Attorney’s office has refused to comment on the target of the investigation since Friday’s raid on Democrat Gordon Fox’s Statehouse office and home. Fox resigned his speakership the next day in a written statement, but he did not address the investigation, other than to say he wanted to focus on it. His lawyer has refused to comment.
On Tuesday, Nicholas Mattiello, Fox’s Democratic House majority leader, was elected to succeed him on a 61-6 vote, with six abstentions and two absent.
Last week’s raids were conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s office, the FBI, IRS and state police after they received two federal search warrants. No one has said whether Fox is the target of the criminal probe, and Jim O’Neil, a defense lawyer who is a former state attorney general, said it’s not a good idea to speculate.
But, he said any search of the Statehouse would have given prosecutors and the magistrate judge who signed the search warrant pause because it is so high profile and because it is considered the people’s house.
“There’s a need to ensure that you have all your t’s crossed and i’s dotted,” he said, recalling that in 1980 when he was an assistant U.S. attorney, the FBI descended on the Statehouse one morning at 7:30 a.m. They inventoried all the furniture in the House to gather evidence in an investigation into whether House Speaker Edward Manning had taken kickbacks from a contractor. Manning was later charged and had two trials, both resulting in hung juries.
O’Neil called Friday’s search “most professional.”
“I think their tight-lipped approach to it is equally professional and wise. It’s serious business and a serious situation. Serious and sad,” he said.
Fox lives on a quiet block in an upscale neighborhood on Providence’s East Side. He has had a seat in the part-time General Assembly since 1992, where, as speaker, he made a salary of $30,000. But his profession is as an attorney with a sole-practitioner law practice in downtown Providence. A hair salon he and his husband, Marcus LaFond, a hair stylist, opened in 2010 closed its doors a few months ago.
In his legal practice, he is known to represent businesses before the city’s board of licenses, a board on which he once served. He also performed loan closings, and that work got him into trouble with the state ethics commission after he failed to report more than $40,000 in legal work he did for a Providence economic development agency. He settled with the commission in January and agreed to a $1,500 civil fine.
Robert Flanders, an attorney and former state Supreme Court Justice, said other than the presence of the IRS, which indicates there are issues with income reporting of some kind, it is very hard to know what the investigation involves.
It’s unclear when more information will be released. It could take time for investigators to process the evidence they seized Friday, Flanders said, and they could decide to call witnesses before a grand jury, the proceedings of which are secret. In the meantime, “I think that all of us are really in the dark,” he said.
“It’s unsettling to say the least for everyone. When your top leadership is subject to inquiry like this, it causes us all to take a step back,” he said. “The secrecy surrounding it doesn’t help because it leads to unwarranted speculation.”
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