The nation's most influential Democratic governor is embroiled in an ethics scandal after awarding a $1 billion no-bid contract to one of the party's top fundraisers.
Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo—who also serves as chairwoman of the Democratic Governors Association—negotiated a 20-year exclusive deal with International Game Technology (IGT) behind closed doors. Critics allege that Donald Sweitzer, the DGA treasurer and IGT lobbyist, unduly influenced her to forego an open-bid process on the contract. The contract is now the subject of an ethics inquiry. Brandon S. Bell, special counsel to the state's Republican party and author of the complaint, said the deal had all the appearances of corruption and political cronyism.
"It doesn’t look good, does it? When the governor doesn’t have an open-bid process and her IGT lobbyist is right by her side," Bell told the Washington Free Beacon.
Raimondo has defended the decision since it was first announced in June, submitting a 26-page response to the GOP's complaint to the ethics commission on Sept. 19. Her legal team has argued that Sweitzer had no financial incentive to facilitate a $1 billion deal for his client because Rhode Island lobbyists cannot legally receive bonuses for successfully passing favorable regulations. The rebuttal also said that Sweitzer is not the governor's business associate because a DGA treasurer does not play an "active or meaningful role in shaping the DGA's 'financial objectives.'"
Neither Raimondo nor the DGA responded to requests for comment about the ethics inquiry or the no-bid contract.
Bell criticized the governor's handling of the ethics investigation. He said her justifications for the deal were "misleading, erroneous, irrelevant" and said details of the negotiations have only emerged "because of the pressure" from the general public following media reports.
"Raimondo's response doesn't really make sense," Bell said. "Raimondo has invested political capital into this."
The state GOP responded to Raimondo in a brief filed on Monday. Bell, who previously served as the state party chairman, argued that lobbyists do, in fact, have an incentive to achieve their client's legislative ambitions, and that an organization's treasurer does care about its "financial objectives." Bell told the Free Beacon that the governor's position is untenable and criticized her administration for foresaking a major economic opportunity for the state.
"The governor could have still had an open bid process that was going to make IGT win," he said. "But it would have at least forced IGT to lower the price ... we would have had a much better deal."
While Raimondo continues to respond to the ethics commission in court, she has also adopted a stall tactic, withholding 95 documents requested by the Providence Journal regarding the IGT deal. The newspaper complained that the governor's office embraced flimsy legal tactics to dodge disclosure laws. Former state attorney general Arlene Violet sided with the Journal in the dispute, accusing Raimondo of hiding crucial communications about the deal.
"What was turned over on the last day the law allowed the state to respond were innocuous calendar entries and emails," Violet wrote in the Valley Breeze. "Any meaty documents were withheld on spurious grounds such as records generated during the deliberative process. No such language in the Access to Public Records Act exists. Further, the law requires a list of documents withheld to be sufficiently delimited as to what each is. The governor prefers to use generic language for categorization."
Government transparency advocates have also been critical of Raimondo's handling of the scandal. John Marion, executive director of Common Cause, a government watchdog, said state law provides clear-cut exemptions for FOIA requests. He said the governor's legal team was operating "outside of the statute" to keep its communications under wraps.
"We believe that the public records law in Rhode Island contains a sufficient number of exemptions that protect the privacy and protect the deliberative process, and we don't think the Raimundo administration should be asserting additional exemptions outside of the statute," Marion told the Free Beacon.
The Rhode Island general assembly is scheduled to address the deal and ethics investigation on Thursday.