In an investigative report, the ethics committee noted that Thomas E. Lisi Jr. was a partner of YKSM who served as Merolla’s campaign treasurer until 2019, and another YKSM partner, Salvatore Santilli, was Deputy Treasurer of the Merolla Campaign. Merolle and her father had both been clients of Santilli since the 1990s, and Santilli had worked for the Merolla law firm, according to the report.
The settlement document noted that the investigation “did not reveal any evidence that (Merolle’s) official actions regarding Warwick City Council’s contract with YKSM provided him with a financial benefit.”
Merolla, a lawyer, served on city council for 21 years before launching an unsuccessful campaign for the state Senate last year.
After Tuesday’s Ethics Commission meeting, Merolla’s attorney, Christopher S. Gontarz, said: “As the conclusion indicates, there was no financial benefit to Mr. Merolla. He believed at the time he conducted the vote that he was not a business associate with YKSM, in his understanding of the law at the time.
Rob Cote, the Warwick resident who filed the ethics complaint against Merolle, said: “I think he did well. On a possible fine of $ 50,000, he was awarded $ 3,500. As an officer of justice, he should have been held to a higher standard. It is a travesty of justice. “
An Ethics Commission investigative report found that Merolla not only voted for increases of $ 30,000 and $ 165,000 in a municipal contract with YKSM, but also signed five invoices for the company. and harassed administration officials when they were reluctant to make payments.
Former Warwick mayor Joseph J. Solomon Jr., who died in May, told the town’s finance director not to pay the company after learning from a report about Merolle’s ties to YKSM, according to the report. But Merolle lobbied for the payments, writing to the mayor’s chief of staff, William DePasquale Jr., saying, “It’s embarrassing. These guys do a great job and we don’t pay them.
DePasquale responded by saying that city council should increase the amount approved for YKSM. And according to the report, Merolla told DePasquale, “Bill, he’s a spinning bull ****… you just have to pay it.”
In August, Gontarz defended Merolla, saying the ethics complaint had to be seen in the context of what was happening in Warwick at the time.
Gontarz noted that the city hired YKSM because the city’s fire department was under scrutiny over allegations of hijacking involving unused sick leave and vacation. He said Merolle and other city council members were concerned about the allegations, and he said YKSM was one of the few companies with the expertise to look into such issues.
But Cote said Merolle never released a report detailing YKSM’s findings on fire department payments.
In August, Cote said: “We have not received any post-its, no flap, no matchbook cover printed on it, showing the results of money allocated from taxpayer coffers to a private accounting firm to investigate the fire department. “
But accounting firm Marcum released a report in September, a day after the ethics committee discovered a probable cause Merolle had violated the code of ethics.
This long-awaited report, dated August 18, showed the town of Warwick made up to $ 386,000 in “overpayments” to firefighters for unused sick leave between 2013 and 2018.
The firefighters union argued that firefighters had never received “overpayments” and that there was no need for compensation. The union said it disagreed with the city on how to interpret a previous version of the contract, and they attempted to clarify that language with a memorandum of understanding in 2013, under the administration. by former Mayor Scott Avedisian.
But Cote unearthed a note, written by a city council lawyer in 2018, that said Warwick firefighters or their union should reimburse up to $ 386,000 in “overpayments” to firefighters for unused sick leave. between 2013 and 2018.
On Tuesday, Cote said that neither Warwick Mayor Frank J. Picozzi, current city council chairman Stephen P. McAllister, nor council finance committee chairman Timothy Howe had indicated they intended to request a restitution.
“In the end, the taxpayers are left with the bag for $ 611,000,” he said, referring to the firefighters’ sickness benefit and the YKSM contract total. “The previous administration and this administration have turned their thumbs. All we heard was “We are reviewing it”. This is nonsense. “
In December 2020, Merolle struck a deal with the state’s electoral board to pay a fine of $ 1,000 for using nearly $ 6,000 of campaign funds to pay for advertisements for his law firm in a newsletter. parish. At the time, he said the violation was unintentional.
Also on Tuesday, the Ethics Commission approved plans proposed by Governor Daniel J. McKee’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Reverend Christopher Abhulime, to “avoid and / or manage potential conflicts of interest, if any,” involving his wife’s new business.
His wife is the sole owner of Agape Homes of Rhode Island, a “newly formed private entity that intends to provide 24 hour community care in small residential facilities to eligible adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. and complex health needs ”. She will soon apply for a license from the State Department of Behavioral Health Care, Developmental Disorders, and Hospitals.
But Abhulime told the commission that his “departmental portfolio” did not include oversight of that department. On the contrary, he said, his “portfolio” includes the Ministry of Labor and Training, the Ministry of Environmental Management, the Office of Energy Resources and the National Guard, among others.
In addition, Abhulime told the committee he would withdraw from any agency budget discussions related to his wife’s affairs. And he said his wife would make decisions about the business without any input or advice from him.
In another case, a staff attorney for the Ethics Commission drafted an opinion that allegedly required the former director of the State Budget and Management Office, Jonathan Womer, to wait a year, under code of ethics provisions on the “revolving door”, before she could work with a “Budget Cohort” in her new work with The Policy Lab at Brown University.
But the ethics committee voted 3 to 2 against the project, so the committee did not give an opinion on the matter. Womer described the “Budget Cohort” as a group of state and local budget officials in Rhode Island, North Carolina, Ohio, Colorado, Louisiana, District of Columbia, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. .
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter @FitzProv.