State opens ethics probe into former officials’ Philly trip
Investigation of alleged misconduct expected to take six months
The Rhode Island Commission made its decision in executive session Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Ethics Commission on Tuesday unanimously agreed to open investigations into two former state officials over alleged misconduct during a March business trip to Philadelphia.
The probe comes more than three months after executives of Scout Ltd., a Philadelphia-based company vying to redevelop the Cranston Street Armory in Providence, sent an email to Gov. Dan McKee’s office alleging misconduct by former Department of Administration (DOA) Director James Thorsen and David Patten, the state’s former property director.
A separate investigation is also being conducted by the Rhode Island State Police.
The Ethics Commission filed its own complaints on June 15, calling for separate investigations. According to the complaints, Patten and Thorsen may have violated a state law that bars public officials from receiving any financial gain or reward from their state positions, as well as an a regulation prohibiting officials from accepting items worth over $25 or a collection of gifts worth over $75 from someone with business before the government.
“We have to enforce the code of ethics,” Jason Gramitt, the commission’s executive director, told reporters after the meeting.
Cases will be investigated individually, Gramitt said, adding that it could take up to six months to complete the probe.
Neither Patten nor Thorsen were present at the commission’s meeting. Michael Lynch, Patten’s attorney, said in an email Tuesday evening “the action of the Ethics Commission today was not a surprise.”
“The Commission, at this point, does nothing more than look at the four corners of the Complaint presented, which was filed, in this case, by an investigator for the Commission who knows the necessary terminology to include in a complaint.
There has been no adjudicatory finding and the Commission will move forward with its investigation. It would be inappropriate, at this time, to further address this matter,” he said.
According to a March 10 email from Everett Abitbol, director of hospitality and development at Scout Ltd., Patten repeatedly asked tenants of Bok — a former vocational school located in South Philadelphia that Scout owns and redeveloped — for something to take home with him, including sneakers.
Scout officials also claimed Thorsen failed to intervene.
In a statement sent earlier this month, Thorsen said, “I advised the Director of the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance that an item he obtained was de minimis was when I saw him holding a shoe box that he advised me was a sneaker box that had been given to him by one of Bok’s vendors/tenants during the tour.”
“When I later learned that the box contained sneakers, I directed him to return them immediately,” Thorsen said.
Abitbol’s email also claimed the pair of Rhode Island officials asked to have lunch at a Michelin-star restaurant which only served dinner. Upon being told they could not have lunch, Patten allegedly said, “Well, you can call in a favor if you want $55 [million] in funding.”
The governor tried to keep the email secret for three months before releasing it on June 8, one day after Attorney General Peter F. Neronha ordered its release after WPRI-TV and the Providence Journal appealed McKee’s refusal under the state’s Access to Public Records Act.
McKee said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that “the Ethics Commission plays an important role in government and we look forward to them carrying out that work and conducting their due diligence into this matter.”
Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said the Ethics Commission initiating its own investigation is an unusual move. Typically, Marion said, complaints are filed by an outside organization or individual.
“They do it quite often for people who fail to disclose financial disclosure,” he said. “But for things I call ‘substantive violations,’ it’s rare that they would do this.”
But Gramitt said the commission’s call for investigations was “not as unusual as you think.”
“We did it last year and we’ve done it in years past,” Grammitt said.
Abitbol’s March 10 email should greatly assist the commission in its investigation, Marion said.
“That email, in many ways, reads like what the investigatory report will probably read like,” he said.
Though the email was the catalyst for the investigation, Gramitt said the commission may also file records requests from state agencies, along with issuing subpoenas if necessary.
“We’ll do what we need to do to make sure it’s a full, good investigation,” he said.
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