PROVIDENCE – When he started thinking about running for Warwick City Council in 2005, K. Joseph Shekarchi had already built a successful legal practice, representing clients in front of various boards and commissions across the state. So before formally tossing his hat into the political ring, he sought the advice of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.
Could he serve on the City Council and still conduct business before Warwick’s zoning and planning boards?
Shekarchi received a split decision. The commission ruled that he could appear before the planning board because its members were not confirmed by the City Council, but he would not be allowed represent clients in zoning board meetings because members of that panel are confirmed by the council.
The matter became a moot point. Shekarchi held off on running for council and continued to build his law practice while dabbling in politics – he ran Gina Raimondo’s campaign for state treasurer in 2010 – before finally placing his name on the ballot in 2012, when he won his current seat representing House District 23 in Warwick.
But as he prepares to ascend to speaker of the House in January, Shekarchi, a Democrat, will now be forced to balance a part-time job that is widely considered the most powerful political office in the state and a thriving law practice that can benefit from or be affected by the decisions he’ll make as speaker.
“If Shekarchi wants to make a name and turn around the image of the speaker from any suggestion of self-dealing, he should avoid any appearances of impropriety,” said former Attorney General Arlene Violet.
She said that she was encouraged to hear Shekarchi is considering scaling back his private law practice when he becomes speaker, suggesting that legal work involving government-owned real estate or appearances before local zoning boards could present conflicts.
Indeed, Shekarchi has vowed to cut back on his legal work. “I plan to significantly reduce my work before local zoning boards, but I still have to earn a living as an attorney,” he said Monday.
“Although I am humbled by the support of the House Democratic Caucus, I am not officially elected speaker until January 5th,” Shekarchi said “I am well aware of the increased time commitment of these new responsibilities, so I will be scaling back my private law practice. I haven’t developed any specifics yet because I have to speak to my law clients in the coming weeks.”
Unlike members of the Warwick City Council, members of the General Assembly are not prohibited by the state’s code of ethics from appearing before local zoning boards.
Rhode Island lawmakers are also not required to publicly identify their private business clients on their annual financial disclosures, and few cities and towns have lobbying ordinances that require attorneys to register before they appear before a local board of commission. (Providence, the largest city, defines a lobbyist as “any person, who, as an appointed representative, seeks to influence a municipal decision.")
A review of news clips and public meeting minutes from recent years shows Shekarchi has represented renewable energy companies, a medical waste processor, several developers, the company that purchased most of the former Benny’s properties, and Marshall Properties, which bought the Metacomet Country Club (he is no longer involved with the company).
“Land use and permitting requires an attorney to be just as adept at public hearings as community relations,” Shekarchi’s law office website states. “Shekarchi Law Offices has a proven track record of accomplishments in the public arena. Having extensive political experience and sensitivity to the political realities of public permitting process is something Shekarchi Law Office has demonstrated over and over again.”
His website also lists real estate closings, bond underwriting, business formations, personal injury, and administrative hearings as other areas of practice.
At the State House, Shekarchi has not been shy about sponsoring legislation related to zoning, either. In the last two legislative sessions, he was the lead sponsor on legislation that would reduce the number of zoning board members needed to make a quorum during a meeting. Neither bill was approved.
Shekachi said he has never sponsored legislation for a specific client, noting that the bills were submitted on behalf of the Rhode Island Builders Association.
Shekarchi isn’t the first speaker who has faced questions about his private legal work.
Every Rhode Island House speaker since at least the 1970s has worked as an attorney, including outgoing Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.
“The practice of law was full-time, and the speakership was full-time,” said John Harwood, a Democrat who served from 1993 to 2002 — the second-longest serving speaker in more than a century.
There is no law that prohibits members of Rhode Island’s part-time General Assembly from holding outside employment. William Murphy, another former speaker, has long maintained that the state should consider moving to a full-time legislature, potentially avoiding some conflicts.
Harwood said that it’s inevitable that any speaker is going to develop opponents who criticize their outside work, but he his advice would be to “follow the law.” He noted that, technically, the speaker has some control over the judiciary’s budget, which means that critics could make the argument that a speaker shouldn’t do outside work at all.
“I guess the only place you’d have to do any work is the priesthood,” Harwood joked.
But Violet, the former attorney general (and nun), said it’s better to be safe than sorry, as former Speaker Gordon Fox learned. Fox, an attorney who resigned the speakership in disgrace in 2014, pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe, and served time in federal prison.
“You’re the one who wanted to be in that role,” Violet said, pointing out that powerful jobs can involve personal sacrifice. “You sought it, you do it.”