PROVIDENCE — During a meeting with reporters Thursday, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha dropped a reference to former NFL quarterback Daryle “The Mad Bomber” Lamonica.
He said he encourages his staff to “throw the deep ball” — just as “The Mad Bomber” did for the Bills and the Raiders from 1963 and 1974 — when it comes to a range of issues handled by the attorney general’s office.
“I view myself as an activist AG,” Neronha said. “I viewed myself as an activist US Attorney. In this sense: I want to push the limits of our authority where it benefits the people of the state.”
Those comments provided a broader context as Neronha outlined his priorities for the year, including his plans to issue a report on clergy sexual abuse and how the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence has responded to those allegations.
“I anticipate laying out what we found in terms of allegations of abuse and what the diocese response was -- and whether, in my judgment, I think that was appropriate,” Neronha said.
In July, Neronha entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Diocese of Providence to provide access to records dating back to 1950 as part of a review of allegations of clergy child sex abuse. At the time, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin said the agreement showed that the diocese is cooperating with law enforcement.
On Thursday, Neronha said his office has hired a paralegal to work full-time on the review, along with attorneys, and they’re about halfway done. He expects a report to be ready later this year, but not before summer. “There’s just a tremendous amount of information,” he said.
Neronha said he does not know if his office will pursue criminal charges related to those allegations, but if charges are filed, those would take priority over the report.
Neronha noted a grand jury report in Pennsylvania revealed that church leaders covered up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests over several decades, but because of the statute of limitations, only a few of those cases led to criminal charges.
During a wide-ranging discussion with reporters, Neronha said he sees a clear need for his office to play an active role on issues such as health care, environmental enforcement, and consumer protection.
“I think health care is the big issue facing this office in the next 12 months,” he said. “If we don’t get our act together there, if we don’t have a plan in place, we are going to be standing on the sideline, and I don’t know that that is where we should be.”
Those comments come amid turmoil in Rhode Island’s health care industry.
Three years ago, Care New England closed Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket. Seven months ago, Care New England pulled out of negotiations to form a local academic health center with Lifespan and Brown University. And in December, Lifespan, the state’s biggest hospital group and largest private employer, reported a $55-million operating loss.
Neronha said one way his office can get involved with health care matters is by weighing in on the transfer of a hospital’s charitable assets.
Over the years, a hospital might have received millions in charitable assets donated for the care of people in a particular community, and if a hospital such as Memorial closes, court approval is needed to transfer those charitable assets, he said. In such situations, the attorney general’s office should be thinking about the community’s health care needs and whether those assets should remain there, he said.
Neronha said he’s particularly concerned that Rhode Islanders have access to primary care physicians.
“I’m a big believer in primary care — not just because I’m married to a primary care physician,” he said. “I’m concerned about a state where 97 percent of the people here are covered by health care insurance but can’t get an appointment with a primary care physician.”
Neronha said he expects the trend toward consolidation in the health care industry to continue, so his office has to be ready to analyze those transactions.
“What worries me about health care is, as we get bigger, are we driving innovation and flexibility out of the market?” he said. “Bigger isn’t always better, so we have to be thoughtful about the decisions we make.”
Neronha said he also wants the attorney general’s office to do more on environmental law enforcement.
“I don’t think we had done a lot in recent years,” he said. “I think we have really stepped up our game, and I think you will hear more about it this year.”
While declining to provide a specific example, Neronha said, “I can tell you that the port of Providence is a focus for this office.” He said, “If you are a business and we believe that you need a permit — an air control or air pollution permit — and you don’t have one, well, you are either going to get one … or we are going to sue you to make sure you do.”
Given those ambitious goals, is Neronha — a Democratic former U.S. Attorney who was elected as attorney general in 2018 — thinking of running for governor in 2022?
“I’m not running for governor ever,” Neronha said. “I ran for this job because I like this work. I don’t have any ambitions beyond this job. I expect to run for re-election.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com