Ethics Commission to investigate GOP complaint about Speaker Shekarchi

New DOA director shuffles org chart to avoid conflicts of interest involving spouse and pharmacist legislator OKed to vote on license fees

By: - June 27, 2023 4:28 pm

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi now faces a probe into a bill he supported in 2017. The state GOP claims the bill would have benefited one of his clients. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Ethics Commission voted 5-0 Tuesday to investigate a GOP complaint filed against House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, among other decisions regarding state officials.

The complaint, filed by Rhode Island GOP Chair Joe Powers, alleges Shekarchi violated the state ethics code in 2017 when, as the House majority leader, he supported failed legislation that would have allowed weddings to be hosted at local farms for a fee.



Powers alleged the legislation would have personally benefited one of Shekarchi’s clients.

In a statement Tuesday, Shekarchi called the complaint “partisan.” 

“I look forward to mounting a vigorous defense against this political complaint,” he said. “I will not let this partisan political theater prevent me from promoting issues that are important to Rhode Island’s future.”

After the vote, Powers in a statement thanked the commission for launching the probe, along with ones into two former state officials for their alleged misconduct in Philadelphia in March.

“Unethical behavior by our top public officials gives Rhode Island a bad reputation,” Powers said. “In order to do business in Rhode Island, you should not need to give gifts, free lunches, campaign donations to public officials, or hire a legislator as your lawyer.” 

Commission Attorney Teodora Popova Papa tells board members of DOA Director Jonathan Womer’s plans to avoid conflicts of interest with his wife, who also works for the department. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

New DOA director shuffles chain of command

The new director of the Department of Administration (DOA) plans to reconfigure the chain of command in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest with his wife, who also works for the department.

The plan was presented before the Rhode Island Ethics Commission Tuesday, which unanimously approved the recommendation from DOA Director Jonathan Womer.

Womer was appointed by Gov. Dan McKee to fill the post vacated by James Thorsen, who himself is the subject of an ethics investigation. Thorsen left the DOA in April to take a job with the U.S. Treasury Department.

Womer’s wife, Valerie Baxter Womer, currently works as an analyst for the Office of Regulatory Reform (ORR). Through the chain of command, an ORR analyst reports to the chief of strategic planning, who reports to the Office of Management & Budget, which reports to the DOA director.

In order to avoid any conflicts of interest, Womer suggests having the OMB director report to the senior adviser to the governor regarding ORR workers.

“As DOA director, he would not have any authority or supervision over the governor’s adviser,” Commission Attorney Teodora Popova Papa told the board. 

McGaw allowed to vote on pharmacy bill

State Rep. Michelle McGaw, a Portsmouth Democrat, received clearance from the commission for her vote on legislation that may personally affect her.

Rep. Michelle McGaw, a Portsmouth Democrat, represents District 71 , which includes parts of Portsmouth, Tiverton, and Little Compton. (Rhode Island House of Representatives)

Earlier this year, the General Assembly introduced legislation limiting the renewal fee for a pharmacist license to $250 every two years — down from the current fee of $280. McGaw, who works as a licensed pharmacist, voted in favor of the bill on June 6. 

A petition was filed by McGaw prior to the June 6 vote because she wanted to participate but worried about violating the state’s code of ethics, Commission Attorney Lynne Radiches told the board.

But the Ethics Commission did not meet the day of the vote. Instead, it sent a “letter of safe harbor” — something Radiches said “allows a petitioner to act from the date of the letter” unless the commission says otherwise.

The pharmacy bill passed both chambers of the State House and was signed into law by the governor on June 19. According to the commission, the law would affect between 1,000 to 2,000 people.

Radiches told the board that while the law will directly impact McGaw, she will be affected “to no greater extent than any other individual member of this class.” The commission agreed.

“However, in the event that the discussion veer into amending the proposed legislation in ways that would impact the petitioner individually, or as a member of a much smaller class or subclass of pharmacists, the Petitioner must either recuse from participation or seek additional guidance from the Ethics Commission,” the draft opinion read.


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.