PROVIDENCE — James A. Diossa has filed a complaint against his Democratic opponent in the state treasurer’s race, alleging that former Rhode Island Commerce secretary Stefan Pryor violated the federal Hatch Act, which limits political activities by federal employees and state officials working with federally funded programs.
Diossa, a Democratic former Central Falls mayor, filed the complaint with the US Office of Special Counsel on Monday, saying Pryor announced his candidacy for treasurer on May 24 but remained in his state job while seeking endorsements and accepting donations.
“With the secretary’s time at the Commerce Department coming to an official close, I now call on him to return any and all campaign donations he may have accepted during the time he held the role of both appointed official and political candidate,” Diossa said in a statement.
But Pryor, who stepped down as commerce secretary on Tuesday, rejected the idea that he violated the Hatch Act, saying his campaign had sought advice from the Office of Special Counsel.
Kelley Resendes, an attorney in the Hatch Act Unit of the Office of Special Counsel, responded, saying, “As applied to fundraising, the Hatch Act generally does not prohibit covered state or local government employees from soliciting or accepting political contributions.”
However, Resendes wrote, “employees may not coerce, attempt to coerce, command, or advise another employee to contribute anything of value for a political purpose.”
Pryor issued a statement Wednesday, saying, “It’s clear that my opponent is running a campaign based upon trickery and false claims.” He said the “made-up legal filings” are one sign of “a desperate campaign.”
“The voters of Rhode Island now know which campaign stands for substance over nonsense,” Pryor said. “That’s my campaign, which is focused on keeping our state’s financial and pension systems strong as well as growing the economy for everyday Rhode Islanders.”
When he announced his candidacy on May 24, Pryor said he planned to transition out of his Commerce position within two weeks, and he said that during that period he would not accept any contributions from in-state donors.
On June 16, Diossa called for Pryor to immediately step down as commerce secretary, claiming Pryor had “recklessly clung to power” after nearly three weeks, and was using his state position for “future political gain.” He claimed Pryor’s continued presence was jeopardizing negotiations over the Tidewater Landing project, which includes a proposed soccer stadium in Pawtucket.
Pryor dismissed Diossa’s claims at the time, saying, “I’m glad I’m being welcomed onto the campaign trail so eagerly. Everyone knows I’m transitioning from my current job shortly.” When he resigned, Pryor said that Governor Daniel J. McKee and Commerce board members had asked him to stay “a couple weeks longer” than anticipated “to offer further assistance on some key fronts.”
Enacted in 1939, the Hatch Act limits certain political activities of federal employees, as well as some state, Washington D.C., and local government employees who work in connection with federally funded programs, according to the Office of Special Counsel.
In his complaint, Diossa noted that while Pryor is not a federal employee, Rhode Island Commerce acts as the primary conduit for some federal programs. For example, Rhode Island Rebounds is a state initiative that invests in “children, families, workers, housing, and small business owners” with federal funds.
While Pryor said he would not accept donations from in-state donors while he was commerce secretary, Diossa’s complaint said, “Geographic location is, of course, irrelevant to any analysis under the Hatch Act.”
Diossa said Pryor made public comments indicating he intended to accept donations from out of state, and he opened a campaign donations page while still serving as Commerce secretary.
Also, Diossa said Pryor campaigned around the state and sought endorsements. For example, he said Pryor addressed the Democratic Association of City and Town Chairs, making “repeated reference to his present office” and ended up getting the group’s endorsement.
“All of these actions evidence a clear attempt to influence the outcome of an election — the Democratic primary for general treasurer — in his favor,” Diossa wrote.
While Pryor has resigned, Diossa claimed that “does not mitigate any Hatch Act violation that occurred between the date he announced his candidacy (and perhaps prior to that point in time, since he purchased the domain “pryorforri.com” in or around August 2021)” and when he stepped down.
In his response Wednesday, Pryor also said that Diossa’s campaign was behind a “fake” Twitter account, @StefanforRI.
Diossa’s campaign manager, Robert Craven Jr., said the Diossa campaign owns that Twitter handle, but he said it’s “not masquerading” as Pryor and is retweeting messages about Diossa. The Twitter account says, “We are not Stefan Pryor. We do support James Diossa for RI General Treasurer!”
Republican James L. Lathrop, the North Kingstown finance director, is also running for treasurer. The candidates are vying to replace term-limited General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, a Democrat who is running for the 2nd Congressional District seat.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.