CAMPAIGN 2020

Merolla church advertisement violated campaign finance law

By LAURA WEICK
Posted 8/13/20

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

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CAMPAIGN 2020

Merolla church advertisement violated campaign finance law

Posted

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.”

Merolla, spending

Comments

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Councilman Jeremy Rix

Glad to see that Councilman Merolla has addressed the issue and reimbursed the money to his campaign account.

Why is the Beacon using an ominous stock photo of cash? Looking up a few of those campaign finance reports, the ads were paid for with checks. The check numbers are even listed in those public reports, which are all available online.

A candidate donated money to a church a dozen times in 6 years and reported it on his campaign finance reports. It's not a violation for donating money to a church, and, there are no allegations that the donations were improperly reported - the alleged violation is the content of the ad. But, instead of showing the ad (or a redacted copy of the ad), it's a picture of cash.

So, what exactly the Beacon is implying with that picture of cash? Is it a minor sin of being a bit less attentive than they should be to the content that's being printed in their bulletin? Or, is it that a stock photo helps sell more newspapers even when it has no real relationship to the story?

Thursday, August 13
Windmills & baseball caps

Mr Rix, it is fraud. The Beacon should use his ad in this article? To promote it more? In full disclosure you rent office space from Mr Merrolla which is a whole other ethics conversation. Can you make independent decisions on City matters that may conflict with those of your landlord, the Council president?

Thursday, August 13
Councilman Jeremy Rix

Mr. Windmills & baseball caps: I have nothing to hide, and, am not afraid of using my real name. :)

Unfortunately, you're repeating a rumor. I share office space with Mr. Merolla, but, he is not my "landlord," and I don't pay rent to him. His firm and my firm each rent office space.

To answer your question, yes, I do make independent decisions on City matters. Since I founded my own firm and started renting space, there have been several high profile votes where the Council President and I voted different ways. These included votes on two different municipal contracts and two municipal court judges. If I recall correctly, 3/4 of those votes would have gone the other way if I were to have voted with the Council President.

Being a professional and holding office means not allowing friendships to affect voting, nor allowing voting to affect friendships.

It's easy to throw accusations. But, if you're interested in facts and not mud-slinging, you'd be welcome to give me a phone call.

Thursday, August 13
bill123

According to the Beacon, Councilman Merolla says his campaign money was used to buy non-campaign-related ads featuring his law firm.

It has not been explained, how this could be an “honest mistake”, by professionals who are normally attentive to even small details, where this is hardly a small detail.

When did Mr. Rix start his own firm ? He says they currently share the same office space, but this is confusing. As of the time I am writing this, Merolla and Rix are both shown with the same firm, at https://merollaaccetturolough.com/about-us/

That means Mr. Rix also benefited from this situation.

Friday, August 14
Councilman Jeremy Rix

bill123: From talking with the office manager, the church had a copy of an ad for the firm Merolla, Accetturo & Lough because the firm ran an ad there before 2014. My understanding is that there was an intention to run an ad for Councilman Merolla instead of Attorney Merolla; the account was switched over but apparently the wrong ad was run with automatic renewal.

I can see how, when someone is donating to a church, the focus is on the donation, not checking up on the ad. That was obviously a mistake. Apparently no one noticed that the wrong ad was being run, and, I doubt that anyone hires an attorney based on a church bulletin.

As for me, I started up my firm and moved into the office space in July 2018. I'm an independent contractor, not an employee, and am listed on the web site as I occasionally provide coverage for others at the firm and they occasionally provide coverage for me. As a sole practitioner, it's important that I have multiple attorneys whom I trust to be able to provide coverage if I go out of state on vacation or if I were incapacitated.

Friday, August 14
Poor firefighter

Mr. Rix,

As an officer of the court you are supposed to be held to a higher standard. Evidently you don't understand that and you are now a perfect example of why we are in this state of chaos. As an attorney you should understand that the laws are supposed to apply equally to all. You clearly want the laws to be flexible depending on how you want to interpret them.

You do understand that this is considered a CRIMINAL ACT, each occurrence. So now the argument becomes was it willful or not. Once is a mistake, maybe twice. For a career politician, prosecutor and officer of the court to plead he didnt know or "it slipped by" is simple BS and you know it. Maybe you should read and understand the law.

CHAPTER 17-25

Rhode Island Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Reporting

SECTION 17-25-13

§ 17-25-13. Penalties.

(a) Any person who willfully and knowingly violates the provisions of this chapter shall, upon conviction, be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be fined not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000) per violation.

(b) The state board may fine any person or entity who violates the provisions of this chapter in an amount not more than one hundred dollars ($100) per violation.

(c) Fines, fees and penalties imposed by the state board for violations of this chapter shall be paid for by the candidate, officeholder or entity against whose campaign the fines, fees or penalties have been levied. Fines, fees and penalties levied by the state board pursuant to this chapter shall not be paid for from contributions or funds available in a campaign account.

By the way, I do find it interesting that your buddy Mike Carreiro pulled this stunt to bag Merolla. Boy does he have gall. After the WFD steals a million dollars from the children of this city, his morality comes into play and decides he needs to make this public.

Also, if I'm not mistaken, wasn't it Mr. Carreiro who headed up your summer party where all of the firefighters volunteered the food for your fund raiser. I seem to remember numerous pictures of him and others on your FB page. Your buddies, they steal from us, know they have found principles and morality. Now you'll be next on the hit list because you also voted against the contract. Watch your back Mr. Rix, they are a ruthless gang of thugs.

Friday, August 14
bill123

It’s clearly not right or defensible, but this allegation obscures something far more important. Since this column likely has the attention of the honorable council member and president, I would like to ask them the following question:

Why hasn’t an audited financial statement for the year ending June 30, 2019 been completed or presented to the city council ?

Saturday, August 15
bill123

see my related comments at: https://warwickonline.com/stories/sp-cites-strong-city-finances-reafirms-aa-rating,154628

Saturday, August 15
TheDeal

Oh C’mon, councilman Rix. Spare us with the all too convenient excuses. Councilman Merolla used campaign cash to promote his private business. Whether it was paper money or a paper check makes no difference. There’s no two ways about it and whining about the photo the beacon used is a poor attempt at distracting from Mr. Merolla’s nefarious campaign financial dealings. And it’s readily apparent that you’re tightly linked to Mr Merolla as evidenced by your quick appearance here to dole out excuses for his bad behavior. The goose and the gander got a taste of their own medicine here.

Saturday, August 15
Pawtuxet Pete

Rix should be distancing himself from this story. Instead he's asking to be a part of it.

It is a crime. Plain & simple.

It is also a crime Merolla will walk away with free lifetime healthcare from the city which he always advocated to strip or reduce city employees of. Perhaps this corruption will cause him to forfeit his healthcare?

Saturday, August 15
Councilman Jeremy Rix

Bill123, Poor Firefighter, TheDeal, and Pawtuxet Pete:

It is easy to be cynical about politics during this partisan time, not to mention that the pandemic isn't exactly helping people think less cynically.

I have not endorsed in the SD-31 race, and, as I consider more than one person in the race to be a friend, I was not planning on endorsing one person over another. I have encouraged them to run a positive race, so, when I do see an attempt to characterize a mistake as a "crime," I will say something. Sometimes, trying to do something good opens up oneself to criticism. I received criticism for donating hand sanitizer to Warwick's first responders; for making hand sanitizer available for free to constituents; and, for working with other candidates so that they could also distribute hand sanitizer for free to their constituents. God help me if I were to ever donate campaign funds to a bona fide church and receive an ad in a church bulletin.

Steve Merolla stated that he made an honest mistake, and, as he is an honest person and based on the context - a recurring donation to a church that he documented and reported with the check numbers - I believe him. The church previously ran the ad, so, there is a simple explanation for how they had that ad. It's easy to say that someone should have caught the mistake earlier, but, that apparently didn't happen.

If someone is determined to believe that someone else acted maliciously to commit a crime, then, I suppose that it would make no difference if I were to point out how these transfers occurred and were regularly reported, even with the optional-to-report check numbers, for years before RI actually required candidates to segregate campaign money and personal funds or to send a copy of a bank statement to verify the account balance. Or, if I were to point out that thoroughly documenting a transfer of funds in campaign finance reports leaves a paper trail that people with the wrong motives would want to avoid leaving. Or, if I were to point out that an ad in a church bulletin would be an incredibly unlikely way to try to get a personal benefit out of campaign spending. But, if someone has absolutely made up their mind and 100% refuses to consider other alternatives - like that a donation to a church isn't some sort of conspiracy - it may be that there is nothing anyone could say nor any evidence that could convince them otherwise.

Monday, August 17
bill123

Posting drafts of his defense through surrogates for public critique, so it can be refined accordingly, shows a lack of ethics and sincerity.

The honorable council members do not want answer, but I’m still asking: Why hasn’t the city’s audited financial statement for the year ending June 30, 2019 been completed or presented to the city council ???

Tuesday, August 18
Truth seeker

bill, that audit should be public information. make an APRA request for your copy. If they dont hand it over right away, file a complaint with the RI Attorney general office of public records enforcement. The WILL investigate and make a finding. Let us know the result. It is really that simple.

Tuesday, August 18
bill123

The only “result” that means anything would be delivered to the city council, each and every year. This is no longer happening. It’s fair to ask why. It’s likely Councilman Rix knows, but he won’t answer, apparently more concerned about “ominous” stock photos and helping his business associate.

Wednesday, August 19
Truth seeker

bill you're talking around the issue yourself now. You griped that an audit has not been released and you cant see it. I suggested you file the proper request, then complaint under APRA to get the entire audit document and if not presented to you, file the formal complaint at the AG. You apparently didnt, and even after my suggestion, sidestep that basic step. Dont bitch about missing public audits if you dont want to send two emails (one to request it, second to AG to initiate a complaint).

Wednesday, August 19
bill123

The APRA can’t help. The issue is not just a document, but an event. The audited financial statement must be formally and publicly submitted by the mayor to the city council, as required by the charter. No submission means a completed statement does not exist, as far as the council is concerned, and everyone else as well. This is important, because the council has oversight. The council is being obstructed in that duty. Councilman Rix, Merolla and the other council members need to explain why this law has been shelved, and why the related public hearings are suppressed. My question is fair to ask, but they are refusing to answer. When we instead see council members more concerned about “ominous” stock photos and helping business associates, we see the city is being sold out.

Thursday, August 20
Truth seeker

So Bill you are saying that the audit was paid for by us taxpayers, but since it was not handed over formally, there is no public record to request under APRA?

Why dont you request "any and all" documents related to this "event" audited or "financial statement " for the year in question, and if they dont give you it, make your formal complaint to the AG under open records and let them all fight it out?

Thats the process. Your request can be broad as you like. Sometimes even the most well meaning public officials need the cover of such an investigation in order to just let it go and hand it over.

Also, I havent done a search but has the Beacon covered this issue yet?

Worth a try, right?

Friday, August 21
bill123

That’s called a “document dump”, an evil technique the public agency uses, usually without even being asked, used to obfuscate the evidence. They are under no requirement to affirm the significance of any document. That’s one reason (among others) the APRA is worthless and weak. That’s why our negligent city council needs to do its job. Still haven’t seen an answer to my question. Guessing when they want to sell out, they go all in.

Saturday, August 22
Ben Dover

Look, If you are so concerned that there has been a violation of law as well as a violation of Warwick's code of ordinance or charter violations, file a complaint with the Ethics Commission against the individual parties, Merolla, the Mayor, the finance director, etc...If in fact the commission uncovers something that is outside of their scope that might be criminal in nature they are required to forward that to the appropriate body, (the AG's office?). Being correct and getting them to do something are entirely different matters. I know, I have been successful before the Ethics Commission against a politician who had numerous egregious violations that could have and should have led to fines of thousands of dollars...Instead, they slapped him on the wrist and fined him pocket change...Good luck.

Saturday, August 22
bill123

I wouldn’t be hopeful an ethics lesson would fix anything either. For this situation, the first thing we need is more facts, but my question has gone unanswered, for days. If someone else would like to try to reach out to the council, and post what they say, that may help get somewhere.

Saturday, August 22
Truth seeker

The APRA is far from "worthless and weak". I have seen it used MANY times successfully, and other times the AG jas violated public officials for not complying (and then they complied). Bill it sounds like you dont want to use APRA, and instead complain.

If you do use it and get the any and all related documents to the audit you seek, then you can I am sure either find your answers, or file a complaint if anything is missing.

I have not seen a "document dump" tactic used. People have either used APRA request and received the documents, or have filed a complaint and then received them. Especially with the AG we have now who was a US attorney and is straight as an arrow.

Saturday, August 22
bill123

A private citizen has little power here, except maybe at the ballot box. Each and every year the people have the right to know the state of the city finances, and the ONLY event where that can happen has been shelved. To the extent this act of defiance conceals poor financial management and other red-flag information, it also protects the responsible officials’ electability in the upcoming election. In other words, when you vote, they want you to be as uninformed as possible. It’s incredible they’re able to do this in plain sight.

Sunday, August 23
bill123

It appears a report from CPA firm YKSM, describing their recent investigations into various city-related financial matters, is inexplicably being withheld from the public (https://warwickonline.com/stories/its-time-to-clear-the-air,154991).

Now we have the sudden shelving of the charter-mandated disclosure of the city’s audited financial statement. It’s easy to presume the two reports are not consistent with each other. This looks like one reason they are both being withheld from the public, or only delivered in obfuscated and unofficial (APRA) fashion, if at all. Inconsistent reports is a smoking gun. How long can the city can continue doing business like this . .

Tuesday, August 25
bill123

Another reason for not releasing reports is the existence of ongoing federal investigations, as alleged by Mr. Cote. That would also explain city officials ongoing silence. This is confusing though, because usually officials under investigation will resign (or bail and parachute to a soft landing . . how many times have we seen that happen), so their duties can be performed unimpeded by others. Here it looks like the entire government leadership would have to resign, if they’ve all had a hand in some of this, so that escape mechanism could actually cause more problems for those involved. This is just my theory, the council needs to give an answer. Still haven’t seen an answer to my question, asked days ago.

Tuesday, August 25