By LAURA WEICK Warwick City Council Chairman Steve Merolla used campaign funds to finance advertisements for his private law firm at least 12 times since 2014, which Merolla says was a mistake that he has acted to correct. The matter was brought to the
Warwick City Council Chairman Steve Merolla used campaign funds to finance advertisements for his private law firm at least 12 times since 2014, which Merolla says was a mistake that he has acted to correct.
The matter was brought to the attention of the Beacon by Michael Carreiro, president of Warwick Professional Fire Fighters, IAFF Local 2748 who sent the Beacon a copy of the advertisement and the payments.
Public records from the Rhode Island Board of Elections Campaign Finance Electronic Reporting and Tracking System show Merolla using campaign funds to pay a total of $5,911 between June 30, 2014 and Aug. 8, 2019 to Liturgical Publications Inc. that prints the bulletins for St. Gregory the Great Church on 360 Cowesett Road. However, the payments were not for campaign advertisements, but instead to promote his private law practice, Merolla, Accetturo and Lough.
According to the Rhode Island Board of Elections the use of campaign funds is restricted to campaign expenses. A candidate found guilty of willfully and knowingly doing so and can be fined up to $1,000 per violation. Violations that cannot be proven to have been done knowingly or willfully can be fined up to $100.
“The law prohibits the ‘personal use’ by any elected public office holder or by any candidate for public office, of any contributions after April 29, 1992,” according to § 17-25-7.2. of the Rhode Island Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Reporting Act. “‘Personal use is defined as any use other than expenditures made for gaining or holding office and for which the candidate or officeholder would be required to pay taxes on such money.”
Merolla told the Beacon that the payments from his campaign account were a mistake, and he would reimburse his campaign account. Merolla said he is a long-time supporter of St. Gregory the Great Church, and has previously contributed to the church personally as well as through his business and his campaign.
“Unfortunately, my campaign account was used to pay for church bulletin ads, even though they featured my law firm and were not campaign-related. This was an honest mistake for which I take full responsibility. I have reimbursed my campaign account to cover the cost of the ads that ran in the St. Gregory’s bulletin that totaled $5,911.”
Carreiro said that he found Merolla’s advertisement in the church bulletin. He said that he was curious about the advertisement, and looked through the campaign finance records to see if Merolla used campaign funds to pay for it. Despite clashing with Merolla over contract negotiations for the city’s firefighters, Carreiro said that his investigation was not politically motivated. Merolla and three other council members sought to delay a vote on the contract agreement Mayor Joseph Solomon reached with the fighters for additional study. The council approved the contract on a 5-4 vote.
He said he is looking into the finance records of other candidates.
As of Wednesday, Aug. 12, Carreiro is uncertain of whether he will make a formal complaint against Merolla.
“By statute, the Board of Elections can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a campaign finance complaint or investigation,” the Board of Elections’ Director of Campaign Finance Richard Thornton said. “When an investigation is completed and presented to the Board in executive session, the matter will be made public only if the Board votes a violation occurred.”