Five months after readily admitting she had hired her son for a part-time summer job with the city, Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt conceded that was a violation of the nepotism clause in the state’s ethics code.
And to settle a complaint filed with the commission the day after a Hummel Report investigation first aired in October, the mayor agreed last month to pay a $750 fine. We also learned that in late November she wrote a personal check to reimburse the DPW for the $880 her son was paid by the city over six weeks last July and August.
After discussing the case in closed session, the commission emerged to announce its unanimous decision to accept the settlement. We asked Chairman Ross Cheit about it later and how the commission determined that a $750 fine was appropriate.
Cheit: Well, I think part of how I would answer that would be in connection with the fact that $880 was paid back. So you’ve paid back money, so there is not unjust enrichment; you’ve taken care of that and you’re paying a fine that’s almost the same amount on top of that. I think it’s a significant fine. We clearly have given higher fines, but I also think that higher fines are when we think that the violation is in a larger dollar amount. This wasn’t a large dollar amount. And it was also a short period of time, and she does not have any prior record with the commission. And the representations from our counsel were that she was both cooperative and remorseful. And we get people who are neither of those.
The commission subpoenaed the original Hummel Report story in which the mayor made no effort to hide the fact the jobs were unadvertised and unbudgeted. This was a portion of our interview:
Hummel: Did you advertise those positions, how did the word get out?
Baldelli-Hunt: No it was not advertised, in the newspaper if that’s what you mean? No.
Hummel: How many people knew about it?
Baldelli-Hunt: The amount of people that knew about it were the people who I just happened to [be] speaking with one day at a function.
The mayor at first defended the hiring during our interview and in several subsequent interviews with other media outlets, saying she was trying to help youngsters in Woonsocket and beautify the city at the same time. She later called it “a misstep.”
We learned from the written settlement accepted by the commission that the function she talked about was a Legion baseball game her son and his teammates were playing in. She offered them the jobs afterward, admitting the jobs were never publicly advertised.
Baldelli-Hunt, who never met with the commission and had her lawyer handle last month’s meeting, stopped short of an apology in a statement she issued later.
“I understand that the residents of this city expect all of their elected officials, including their Mayor, to act and conduct themselves in an ethical and transparent matter (sic). By agreeing to this settlement, I acknowledge that my actions did not live up to the requirements of the Ethics Code.’’
Hummel: And so what would you say to the person, maybe the person from the outside, saying, you know, $750 to me looks like a slap on the wrist?
Cheit: First I’d say look around the country. I was giving a talk in Oregon, where the maximum the ethics commission can give is a $250 fine. I think $750, when you think about other kinds of infractions, is real money. This isn’t like a traffic ticket. And you add the $800 on top of that. I think it’s serious. I don’t think you can look at that and think it’s a slap on the wrist.
Last fall the mayor said she would ask the commission if it would be okay for her son to work in the program again this summer if he went through a different hiring process. So far she has not asked the commission for an advisory opinion and did not return our call seeking comment.
Cheit: I think we take the nepotism regulations very seriously. So the idea that, gee this was just one person for a month, and it’s wasn’t that much money — it’s a black line, strict rule that you don’t take actions as a public official that benefit your relatives. If you do that, you’ve violated the code and we take that seriously.
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