AG Candidate Peter Neronha: “There’s More Work to Be Done”

Last week, I had a conversation with Peter Neronha, fourth generation Jamestown native, graduate of North Kingstown High School and US Attorney for Rhode Island as recommended by Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse.

He’s also the only candidate running to replace Peter Kilmartin, our current (and term-limited) attorney general. Our interview lasted 40 minutes, and presented here is a selection of our discussion. For a transcript of our full interview, go to motifri.com/peterneronha.

Why do you want to be attorney general?

I love public service and want to continue. And the other, more significant, part of it is a lot of the work that I was doing as an attorney — I thought I wasn’t finished. There was more work to do on the opioid crisis and around focusing on a criminal justice system that is smart and effective. I just felt there was there was work left to do and that I am relatively well-positioned to do it. Hopefully the voters agree.

How can Rhode Island be smart on crime?

We’ve got to take advantage of the diversion programs that have been set up as part of criminal justice reform. The legislature passed that last year, and the diversion door has to swing open wide enough to get nonviolent young offenders out of the criminal justice system. There are two good reasons to do that. We can get young people on the right path that’s good for them and for us as a society and a state. And it’s also far less expensive than sticking them out of the training school to young adults out of ACI for 30 days or six months on a relatively low level charge. And then on the back end, when people get out of prison we’ve got to get them back into the workforce as quickly as possible.

What would you do in your first six months of office to help alleviate RI’s opioid crisis?

Part of it is is talking to young kids and adults, but mostly kids, about making smart choices… Part of the reason to talk to kids about why it’s so important to avoid pills is because of the link between pills and heroin. If you can get a pill on the street for $30 and a bag of heroin for $3 to $5, where do you go? The other message for them was that the pill you think is a real pill is not necessarily a real pill. It looks like Oxy, but it’s fentanyl because dealers are pressing fentanyl, which is incredibly cheap, into a pill that looks like Oxy.

What’s your stance on Kristen’s law? (Note, Kristen’s law is nickname for a recently signed, controversial law that creates a new criminal penalty of up to life in prison for an overdose victim’s dealer. It was introduced by AG Peter Kilmartin.)

To go to the end of the conversation I support it. I would not have supported it in its original form, where a life sentence was mandatory, where there wasn’t a carve-out for the Good Samaritan Law, but I do support it because it’s a good tool to have in the toolbox. The question is, when do you use it? I’d be looking at drug dealers who are in the business of dealing drugs in significant weight — [a drug dealer] who doesn’t have a significant relationship with a person who overdoses and knows, or should know, that what they’re dealing with is likely to cause death. I know a lot of the folks who feel differently than I do about that both in the medical community and in the legislature, and I’ve had conversations with many of them and respect where they come from and acknowledge why they’re there. I think it’s a lack of trust in the exercise of discretion by prosecutors, and I understand why that lack of trust exists. I think the response is to demonstrate that we can use our discretion wisely.

It’s hard for me to say that we shouldn’t give prosecutors a tool that they can use because we don’t trust their discretion. When I ask someone to vote for me, I’m asking them to trust me to use my discretion wisely based on my track record.

What’s your stance on the Providence Community Safety Act? 

There are some segments of the community that distrust law enforcement. You can reject the viewpoint as illegitimate or you could acknowledge it and do everything you can to make it better. I think as  U.S. attorney or agent you’ve got to get your people out in the community and build relationships in good times so you can be relied on in bad times. The Community Safety Act, amended, I think it works for Providence.

You talk a lot about going after public corruption. In what ways can we strengthen our ethics, and what ways will you go after public corruption in RI?

You’ve got to have a good relationship with law enforcement. So the first thing is that the FBI, the AG, and the US Attorney all have to have a very good relationship with each other. One of the cases we did, Mayor Moreau in Central Falls, was based on a reporter’s story and then we followed up and built the case looking backward.

The North Providence [case] came in from a tip from somebody who was aware of the illegal conduct. We followed him up and did that on a covert basis. I think that’s part of the bully pulpit. You know I didn’t give a lot of press conferences when I was U.S. attorney. But the ones I did I would say six or seven of them were about public corruption. People would say they could kind of see my level of frustration. I think the first thing we did was with North Providence [the three councilman who took bribes]. And then we did Central Falls [where the mayor took bribes]. Speaker Fox who took bribes and then we did Ray Galliston who engaged in corrupt conduct.

By the time I was gone, almost once a year I was having a press conference on exactly the same thing and so the message never really seemed to resonate and there were public officials who are running for re-election, having been convicted of criminal misconduct in the past. In one press conference I referred to it as political corruption amnesia. We certainly think once you’ve served your time or paid your debt to society, God bless, get back into the workforce and succeed. You only have one chance at being in public service.

Related to public corruption [given the context of sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement], do you feel that sexual harassment is something you should go after and doesn’t get enough discussion? 

Unless you rise to the level of criminal conduct in which case it has to be a priority, I think that you can set a good example as an agency by training around here between the Justice Department around sexual harassment every single year. We had mandatory training around it every single year, 15 years in the Department of Justice, I went through that training 15 times. I think it sets a good example of the way that you’re trained and it’s a priority for your employees. It’s a priority on your department. And that can set an example for everyone else.

On your campaign website you talk about championing worker and consumer protections. What kind of worker protections do you want to enshrine and what kind of consumer protections do you want to enshrine?

We have to be concerned about is prevailing wage, where employers are taking advantage of employees. We did a couple of cases when I was an attorney. There was one where the employer was taking advantage of its workers. I’m convinced because they did not speak English. And whether they were undocumented I don’t know. But at a minimum they did not speak English and I felt like an employer knew they were easy targets to be taken advantage of and did so.

My last hire is a U.S. attorney was the assistant U.S. attorney in our civil division, but her job was to reach communities about knowing what their rights are, so many people don’t know what their rights are. Get out the office, get in front of people and talk about whether you have certain rights around certain issues.

Get in front of people and talk about what you have certain rights around certain issues. You know we have forms about how to make a complaint. You can do it online or get a fax in. Not real effective, right? We would have more of these [complaints] if we had we had forms that weren’t only in English.There are folks who don’t speak English but whose rights are being violated.

But I think we can improve some of consumer protections laws, they’re not as robust as they could be.

Would stuff like Net Neutrality and privacy fall under consumer protections?

That’s really another role for the AG here right, as a democratic AG, pushing back against the Trump administration where appropriate on things that Rhode Islanders care about. Like the environment, DACA, net neutrality.

[If elected AG] would you support PVD as a sanctuary city?

State and local law enforcement should go after people who drive violent crime. I don’t care if that’s a person who is undocumented or a green card holder, or is a citizen. I don’t think it makes sense from a policy or resource perspective to spend our time, federally or locally, at a state level, rounding up people who are in this country and are undocumented and are not committing a crime. We don’t have the resources to do it. Providence has a maximum strength of 500 police officers. The last time I checked they had 400 police officers. All right, so they don’t have enough resources in my view.

Do you support I.C.E?

Do I think we need to eliminate I.C.E.? No. I thought that a reasonably good job when I was U.S. attorney. There are threats to this country that come in not just from the southwest border but from other places are well. It’s going back to that discretion issue again that we talked about earlier. We have these resources. How do we use them and what kind of judgment are we using in using them? I.C.E. and customs border protection are the same people when somebody flies in from the Middle East who is a real threat. The state puts them on a plane sends them right back .

What other ways do you see yourself as AG of RI pushing back against the Trump administration?

If you look at the lawsuits the other democratic AGs have brought against the [Trump administration] the vast majority of I think involve the environment, and all kinds of things like fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, efficiency standards for appliances I mean it’s sort of in the weeds a little bit. But the administration is rolling some of those things back.

I don’t think we can trust this administration to protect our environment. You know one of the things frankly you know we didn’t talk a lot about this but when I was U.S. attorney we’d sued DoT [department of transportation]. DoT had not cleaned a catch basin in Rhode Island in almost a decade. AGs have to step up there and do that kind of work.

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