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Judge overturns $200 ethics fine for R.I. Supreme Court justice

Superior Court judge says Ethics Commission never showed that Justice Flaherty's failure to disclose position on Catholic group was "deliberate or intentional"

Licht Judicial Complex, state courthouse in Providence, R.I.
Licht Judicial Complex, state courthouse in Providence, R.I.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — A Superior Court judge on Friday overturned the state Ethics Commission’s decision to fine state Supreme Court Justice Francis X. Flaherty $200 for failing to disclose that he was president of a Catholic legal group while ruling on a priest sexual abuse case.

Judge Brian P. Stern concluded that the Ethics Commission failed to show that Flaherty’s actions were “deliberate or intentional” or that he was aware he needed to list his position as president of the St. Thomas More Society of Rhode Island on his yearly financial statements.

“The commission decision is clearly erroneous and affected by error of law,” Stern wrote.

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The commission fined Flaherty after receiving a complaint from Helen Hyde, who claims she was sexually abused by a priest more than 40 years ago. She sued the Roman Catholic bishop of Providence, but the case was thrown out because the statute of limitations had passed. Flaherty wrote the unanimous Supreme Court opinion rejecting Hyde’s appeal.

In court papers, Flaherty said he “dutifully listed all of the for-profit and nonprofit entities with which he is associated,” and it “never came to his mind” that he would be required to disclose his involvement with the society, which was described in legal memos as an “informal” or “loosey-goosey” group whose main purpose in Rhode Island is to hold an annual Red Mass to commemorate the opening of the court term.

Flaherty argued that the commission was required, but failed, to show that he “deliberately” omitted his involvement with the society, and that it violated his due process rights through its dual role of investigating and adjudicating complaints.

The Ethics Commission contended that the “clear language” of financial disclosure forms required Flaherty to disclose if he was an officer of a nonprofit of any type. And it pushed back on one of Flaherty’s arguments, saying it was not required to find that Flaherty acted “deliberately” and followed a “knowing and willful” standard articulated by the state Supreme Court.

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In his ruling, Stern said, “It is indisputable that there is an intent element that must be found before a knowing and willful violation of the Code of Ethics can occur.”

And, he said, “The weight of the evidence presented during the adjudicatory hearing supported a conclusion that (Flaherty’s) actions were not deliberate.”

Flaherty apparently believed his reputation was on the line. One of his legal memos began by saying: “A jurist and attorney with more than 30 years of an unblemished ethics records is now being told that he ‘knowingly and willfully’ failed to comply with the Ethics Code.”

Flaherty spent more than a year fighting the $200 fine, using a publicly financed insurance policy to fund the legal battle. The amount of the legal bills has not been made public.

Ethics Commission executive director Jason M. Grammit said the commission will meet at 9 a.m. Wednesday to decide whether to ask the state Supreme Court to review Stern’s ruling. The Supreme Court would have to agree to hear the appeal, and Flaherty would have to recuse himself if the case came before the high court, he said.

But Gramitt said the important thing is that an accusation against a top official was investigated, the results are public, and citizens can reach their own conclusions.

“It’s a $200 case, so the alternative decision is not the most important part,” Gramitt said. “The important part is that a high-level public official was accused of misconduct, we investigated, issued a decision, and released everything to the public.”

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John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said Friday’s ruling will make it more difficult for the Ethics Commission to enforce financial disclosure requirements.

“The problem this creates for the Ethics Commission is that now it must meet a higher standard to prove someone omitted something from their financial disclosure form than it had been using in the past,” Marion said. “The result may be that the public knows less about potential conflicts of interest among their public officials.”

Through a court spokesman, Flaherty said, “The decision speaks for itself. I have no other comment.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.