Elections board asks AG to investigate Charlestown Democrat for campaign finance violations

By: - July 12, 2023 4:16 pm

The Rhode Island Board of Elections office in Cranston. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

A Charlestown Democrat who has unsuccessfully challenged the incumbent Republican state senator in her district three times may face civil or criminal charges for campaign finance violations.

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The Rhode Island Board of Elections on Tuesday voted to ask Attorney General Peter Neronha to consider investigating Jennifer Douglas after finding she flouted campaign finance rules for a second time. Douglas failed to report more than $4,500 each in campaign spending and donations during her 2022 run for state senate, according to the election board audit report.  The audit also found she failed to disclose nearly $1,100 in campaign debt and spent $725 of campaign money on expenses that were not proven to be for her campaign.

It’s not the first time Douglas has run afoul of state campaign finance regulations. In 2021, she agreed to pay a $1,200 fine after the board found she failed to disclose a combined $4,600 in campaign donations and spending from her 2020 run for the same seat.

The Charlestown resident, backed by the progressive Rhode Island Political Cooperative, has tried and failed to unseat Republican Sen. Elaine Morgan for the Senate District 34 seat in the last three elections. 

Douglas did not return calls for comment. The elections board, which discussed the campaign finance violations behind closed doors, only sharing its vote in public session, did not explain the rationale behind its decision. Rhode Island Campaign Finance Director Rick Thornton did not return calls for comment on Wednesday.

John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island, said it’s unusual, but not unheard of, for the elections board to refer campaign finance violations to the attorney general. More often, the board enters into a consent agreement with the candidate in question, often coupled with a financial penalty. 

“Once in a while, when people have not been responsive to  them, they will refer to the AG for criminal prosecution,” Marion said.

The audit report notes that Douglas did not respond to the board’s findings.

Brian Hodge, a spokesperson for Neronha’s office, confirmed in an email that the attorney general received the referral and the office is reviewing the information.

The elections board last fall referred “serious campaign finance violations” to Neronha, after finding that former state Rep. Larry Valencia dipped into Richmond Democratic Town Committee’s funds for personal use, and that Woonsocket City Council hopeful Charmaine Webster used campaign funds for personal use.

Among the most notable, recent examples of charges from Neronha based on campaign finance violations: a 2019 felony embezzlement charge against former Providence City Councilman Luis Aponte, who spent nearly $14,000 from his campaign account on personal cable bills, gas and streaming services.

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Two other candidates who ran for state and local office in 2022 have agreed to pay fines for campaign finance violations during their campaigns. Both agreements were unanimously approved by the elections board on Tuesday.

Diana Garlington, a Providence resident who lost in the Democratic primary for R.I. House District 5 in 2022, will pay a $500 personal fine and forfeit $1,500 from her campaign account. The consent order comes after a state audit found Garlington failed to disclose $1,500 in campaign contributions and another $600 of spending.

Garlington on Wednesday said the violations were not intentional, and that she thought her campaign manager was handling the reports.

“It was my first time running and I wasn’t familiar with the process,” she said.

Meanwhile, Pawtucket City Council contender Nicole LeBoeuf will pay a $500 personal fine plus $1,000 from her campaign account to a vendor she owed. The audit report found that LeBoeuf, who ran for City Council at-large, failed to disclose $2,600 of campaign contributions and another $370 of expenses, in addition to not paying the $1,000 to a vendor.

LeBoeuf on Wednesday cited technical issues with her bank as well as health reasons which caused her to drop out of the race, as reasons for the finance problems. 

“I ended up with cancer which derailed my whole campaign,” she said.

Marion touted the elections board for “vigorously enforcing” state campaign finance regulations. But he also acknowledged the need for better candidate education, since many of the people who get into trouble appear to not know or fully understand their responsibilities around campaign finance.

Last month, Providence City Councilman Juan Pichardo agreed to pay $3,000 for campaign finance violations in his 2022 campaign, which he chalked up to “incomplete record-keeping.” Last week, he stepped down from his role in the city’s Committee on Finance, though he is still on the full council.


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.