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Was State Government Data Used for Politics?: Stephanie Beauté campaign e-mail raises legal, ethical questions

Stephanie Beauté

I received an e-mail message with a press release from Samuel Aboh, Jr, the campaign manager for Stephanie Beauté who is running as an underdog candidate for secretary of state in the Sep 13 Democratic primary. That’s not unusual, but the message was sent to an e-mail address I use for exactly one purpose and one purpose only: subscribing to press releases from the RI Department of Labor and Training (DLT), mostly statistical data about unemployment, job creation, and similar information. I use slightly different e-mail addresses for distinct purposes in order to automatically sort my incoming mail into folders.

So how did the Beauté political campaign obtain an e-mail address that could only come from internal records at a state government agency? Spokesperson Margaux Fontaine confirmed that Aboh is an employee of DLT.

I telephoned Aboh and asked, “I’m curious where you got my e-mail address?”

“It was a press list that was given to me by one of the volunteers on the campaign,” Aboh answered.

“Could you tell me which volunteer?” I pressed.

“I’d rather not. Is that okay? That’s okay?” Aboh said.

“My concern is that I use a series of different e-mail addresses to track and sort my e-mail, and the one that you used is a particular address that’s used for only one specific purpose, so I’m very curious where you got it,” I said.

“I understand. I can reach out to the volunteer and find out more information, if that’s okay?” Aboh said.

That was yesterday (Mon, Aug 8), but he has not called me back and my follow-up call to him went to voicemail. Fontaine was asked for further comment from DLT, but she has not yet responded.

UPDATE Aug 9, 6:00pm: John Willumsen, who identified himself as chief strategy officer at RIDLT, sent a statement on behalf of Fontaine: “The Department cannot comment on specific personnel matters. As a general principle, staff are prohibited from making personal use of any information obtained in the performance of their professional duties.”

If Aboh (or any other employee) at DLT extracted an e-mail address from an internal government database and provided it to a political campaign, that raises ethical and legal questions as to whether it was done on government time and whether it constituted improper commingling of official and political roles. E-mail addresses of third parties in government databases, even if not highly sensitive, are generally regarded as non-public information that is typically redacted from public records before disclosure under the Access to Public Records Act.

I telephoned Beauté directly at the number listed on her declaration of candidacy, but she did not answer and her voicemail stated that it “has not been set up yet” before hanging up without offering the opportunity to leave a message.

According to the press release included in that e-mail, Beauté’s home was damaged by a kitchen fire, and she was alerted by her security service late Sunday night as she was returning from the Dominican Festival in Providence with her four year-old daughter. The house was unoccupied at the time of the fire and no one was injured. The release said, “Beauté planned on hosting a birthday party for her daughter before the fire. The party was moved to the Headquarters Fire Station #2 in North Smithfield where firefighters treated children and parents with a tour of the facility. The children also took turns sitting in firetrucks and were given coloring books as well. Stephanie said the North Smithfield’s fire department’s immediate offer of hospitality for the birthday party was a huge hit with the children and she is most grateful for the quick thinking of the Department.”

Outgoing Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is term-limited, seeking in the Sep 13 Democrat primary to unseat Governor Daniel McKee, who is up for re-election.

Beauté lives in North Smithfield and is making her first run for political office in the Democratic primary for secretary of state against Gregg Amore (D-65), who has represented East Providence in the RI House of Representatives since 2012 and currently serves as deputy majority leader. In the Nov 8 general election, the winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Pat V. Cortellessa, who was defeated for the office in 2018 by Gorbea with a 67%–33% margin. Beauté seems to have decided to enter the race quite late, and her Twitter account was created in July 2022.

Twitter profile of Stephanie Beauté

Author Michael Bilow is the news editor for Motif, covering politics and governmental stories.