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R.I. speaker’s scandal stuns, fascinates state

House speaker’s fall leaves only questions

House Speaker Gordon Fox quickly stepped down.

AP/File

House Speaker Gordon Fox quickly stepped down.

PROVIDENCE — You would think that a state that has seen a governor go to jail and the mayor of its capital city incarcerated between stints as a popular radio host would be blasé about another politician in trouble.

But days after the fall of House Speaker Gordon Fox amid a dramatic raid of his State House office by state and federal investigators, Rhode Island is awash in unbridled speculation about what the longtime lawmaker might have done.

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What the investigators were looking for in Fox’s office — and whether they found it — is still a secret: The search warrants and the affidavits supporting them have been sealed by a court.

“There is a certain amount of shock and people going, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’ ” said John Loughlin, a former Republican state representative from Tiverton. “This is in a new category, even for us. Even for Rogue’s Island.”

Fox’s political tumble was startlingly swift. With no public warning Friday, agents from the Rhode Island State Police, US attorney’s office, FBI, and the criminal investigation division of the Internal Revenue Service swarmed the speaker’s office, told employees to step outside, and then hauled away boxes of potential evidence. Agents also visited Fox’s home in Providence. The investigators executed two federal search warrants, said Jim Martin, a spokesman for Peter F. Neronha, the US attorney for Rhode Island.

Fox announced Saturday he would resign the speakership he has held for four years and will not run again for the House seat he first won in 1992. He has not directly addressed the substance of the investigation.

Fox, a groundbreaker as the state’s first openly gay House speaker, oversaw a number of major initiatives as speaker, including pension overhaul, legalization of same-sex marriage rights, adoption of a new education funding formula, and a voter identification law, said political scientist Maureen Moakley of the University of Rhode Island. She is concerned that his abrupt departure in the middle of a legislative session, and the “thrust and parry of who will be the next speaker,” could disrupt the work of the Legislature as it enters its busy spring season.

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For Rhode Islanders eager for the economically distressed state to outgrow its reputation for ham-handed political scandals and outright corruption, the raid on Fox’s office — and the Democratic lawmaker’s quick surrender of his post — is a disheartening setback.

“This General Assembly of ours needs a good enema,” Ted Collins, a retired Providence police officer who owns several rental properties in the city, said in an interview Monday. “But the reality of this situation is, it’s not going to happen.”

On Monday, in the Smith Hill section of Providence, near the State House, residents expressed dismay and biting cynicism at the latest turn of events.

“It’s kind of sad for Rhode Island,” said Steve Raymond, 60, who has lived in the neighborhood for four decades. “I’d like to think we’re voting for leaders. But more often, we’re voting for politicians.”

Another resident, Tony Quinn, 64, bluntly said that “50 percent of these people are all corrupt along the line.”

Quinn said he believes most lawmakers start out with good intentions, but eventually “you bend a little” in office.

Jay Gilbert, 42, a city resident, said the federal prosecution of former Providence mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci brought additional focus to Rhode Island corruption.

“If he hadn’t stuck his nose where it didn’t belong, we might not have [law enforcement] looking here,” Gilbert said. Cianci, now a radio host, served more than four years in prison on a corruption charge. He was released in 2007.

Speaking of Fox, Gilbert said, “What I know about local Rhode Island politics, it doesn’t surprise me at all. . . . There’s another one waiting to take his place.”

Even joke writers who make their living off the foibles of Rhode Island politicians sounded a little scandal-weary.

“There’s lots of speculation about what’s going on, but nobody knows, not yet,” said comedian Frank O’Donnell. “The thing that amuses me the most, and I guess it shouldn’t but it does, is that the whole concept of innocent until proven guilty is completely out the window with this.”

He offered one rueful joke: “Who says the General Assembly doesn’t care about employment in Rhode Island? Look how many federal and state agencies got overtime last weekend because of the speaker.”

Fox’s exit triggered a fierce scrum for the job commonly referred to as the most powerful in state politics.

“Amongst the political class, it’s like somebody just dropped the football on the 1-yard line of the Super Bowl and everybody’s diving to get on top of it,” said Loughlin.

House majority leader Nick Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, has emerged as the favorite to replace Fox as speaker on Tuesday, according to Rhode Island pollster Joe Fleming, who has worked for Fox.

Robert Healey, a political independent who has run several times for governor and lieutenant governor, said long stays in leadership posts in the powerful Rhode Island legislature can change people.

“What happens in Rhode Island, especially in the speakership, is you get too big for your boots,” he said.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.

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