PROVIDENCE — James Diossa, the Democratic nominee in the Nov. 8 race for state treasurer, rose to local prominence as the mayor of Central Falls, the Blackstone Valley city that emerged from bankruptcy and became what he calls an inspiring comeback story.
The bankruptcy, and the comeback, were attention-getters that brought Diossa around the country and the globe. As mayor, he went on trips to Taiwan, mainland China, England, Mexico, Colombia, East Timor, Malaysia and Israel. He also traveled domestically, with trips during his eight-year tenure to Michigan, Baltimore, San Francisco, Omaha, Miami, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Houston, and, several times each, to New York and Washington, D.C. The trips, collectively, were for conferences, speeches, and cultural exchange visits.
Third-party groups paid for 26 trips over the years, and the city of Central Falls paid for a dozen or so. Some trips, including a portion of the international travel, were funded by a combination of third-party and city funds.
Rhode Island politicians are allowed to travel on the dime of third parties, and it’s not uncommon for them to go on trips to events like mayoral conferences funded by the public. But Diossa traveled more often and farther away than the leaders of some nearby and similarly sized cities in Rhode Island. And now, as he runs for statewide office, it has raised a question: Who benefitted from the travel? Diossa? The residents of the state’s poorest city?
Diossa is sure of the answer: Central Falls itself.
“A lot of benefit did come back from that because of the networks that I built,” Diossa said during a debate Tuesday on WPRO when moderator Bill Bartholomew asked him about it. “We were able to bring back some money into Central Falls, and bring back ideas.”
Yet his critics have highlighted the travel, and pounced on his campaign’s misstatement when trying to explain it.
In August, as he faced Stefan Pryor in the Democratic primary, Diossa’s spokeswoman, Alisha Pina, said on WPRO that no taxpayer funds were used on the travel. That wasn’t true, the campaign now acknowledges — and it’s something Diossa himself would have known, because the city reimbursed some of the travel-related purchases he made on his personal credit card. His campaign now says the misstatement was based on an incorrect understanding.
“While the overwhelming majority of James’ trips to international conferences were not paid by taxpayer dollars, there was a limited amount that were,” Pina told the Globe. “The benefits derived by the city, however, far outweighed the nominal cost spent, and that cannot be overlooked.”
James Lathrop, his Republican opponent and the finance director of North Kingstown, said accepting all these trips from third-party groups was a sign of immaturity. Diossa is 37. Lathrop is 58.
“The worst part is, he wasn’t upfront about it,” Lathrop said in an interview.
Diossa — who declined to be interviewed for this story — said in a written statement to the Globe that he was often invited to speak about the city’s move from bankruptcy and corruption to transparency and economic success during his tenure, which ran from the end of 2012 through the end of 2020.
“Yes, I traveled while I was Mayor,” Diossa said. “But the conferences I attended and the relationships that I built throughout that time proved invaluable. We strengthened the economic and professional profile of a city that was once called dying. And with a resounding message of perseverance, we inspired hope.”
As for tangible benefits of his travel: Diossa pointed to generating new ideas, like bringing a Rhode Island College satellite site to Central Falls, which came about after talking to colleagues in South Carolina about the effect of a university adding a satellite in that state; on returning to Rhode Island, he reached out to Rhode Island College and persuaded them to open a satellite site in Central Falls. His campaign also pointed to federal and non-governmental organization grants; travel related to work on the Census that led to a more accurate population count; and partnerships that improved Central Falls’ financial and administrative standing.
The website GoLocalProv has extensively reported on Diossa’s travel. Diossa’s campaign has pointed to inaccuracies in that reporting, like a supposedly undisclosed trip to Dubai — it was actually a layover in Dubai, part of a trip that was disclosed, the Diossa campaign said.
Diossa’s travel comes to light through financial disclosure forms, which show his travel that was paid for by third parties, and city records, which show his travel that the city paid for.
Thanks to the advocacy of Common Cause Rhode Island, politicians in the state have to disclose travel paid for by third parties. Transparency and scrutiny are important because those trips are often ways for lobbyists and the entities that employ them to provide trips that would otherwise be prohibited under the state’s gift limits, said John Marion, Common Cause Rhode Island’s executive director.
“Mayor Diossa’s financial disclosures reveal an unusual amount of travel, particularly foreign travel paid for by foreign governments and their boosters, for someone who is mayor of a small city,” Marion said. “When it’s coupled with the travel not subject to disclosure, but revealed by other public records, it is a remarkable amount of travel.”
Some of Diossa’s trips are for member organizations like the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, but “quite a few are from entities and governments that appear to be in the business of currying favor with public officials,” Marion said.
Some examples Marion pointed to include the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the consulate general of Mexico in Boston, and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, Taiwan’s version of a diplomatic outpost. The American Council of Young Political Leaders, which paid for Diossa’s trip to East Timor, lists Boeing, Walmart, Capital One and Amazon, among others, as supporters on its website.
In full and only-in-Rhode Island disclosure, Diossa listed a trip to New York City for a panel on the 2020 Census at which Marion was a speaker. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials paid for Marion’s trip, and Diossa’s.
The state treasurer oversees Rhode Island’s $10 billion pension fund, but the office has also been a springboard to running for higher office. For example, former governor Gina Raimondo, who now serves as US Commerce Secretary, was Rhode Island’s state treasurer from 2010 to 2014. Current Treasurer Seth Magaziner, a Democrat, is running for the Second Congressional District against Republican (and former Cranston mayor) Allan Fung. Frank Caprio unsuccessfully tried to make the leap from treasurer to governor in 2010.
Diossa’s trips as mayor of Central Falls ran the gamut, from as close as Hartford to as far as East Timor. City-funded travel included, for example, a U.S. Conference of Mayors conference in Miami in June 2017. The city is listed as the payee for five nights at the Confidante Miami Beach for a total of about $1,400.
In 2019, Diossa went to England to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Blackstone Valley’s compact with the Amber Valley. The city reimbursed Diossa for $1,177 for a flight that he’d put on his personal credit card, city records show. The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council picked up another $465 for lodging.
Diossa also traveled to Taiwan twice, funded by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, which is Taiwan’s version of a diplomatic outpost. One was for a national holiday celebration and the other was to attend a gift ceremony for dragon boats. The municipality of Arjona, Colombia, and the Consulate General of Mexico also funded Diossa’s cultural exchange trips to those countries.
Diossa traveled to Israel three times. One trip, in 2015, was sponsored by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. Another was sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation at a cost of more than $14,000. That is much more than other trips cost. A third Israel trip was taken independently, his campaign said.
Other travel included charter school retreats and professional development in San Francisco and Houston, and a trip to Malaysia to present at the World Urban Forum. The Malaysia trip was funded in part by Central Falls and in part by a group called Next City, city and financial disclosure records indicate.
In all, independent groups spent more than $53,000 on 26 international and domestic trips during Diossa’s eight years as mayor, his disclosure filings show. There were about a dozen trips funded by the city. Though some city funds were used on international travel, city money was generally used for municipal and mayoral advocacy organizations. It’s tough to get an exact accounting of city funds used for his travel in the thicket of purchase orders and budget ledgers, but the city’s annual budget included $5,000 for “professional development,” the line item used for Diossa’s travel.
In North Kingstown, which is slightly larger than Central Falls by population, the appointed town manager, Ralph Mollis, traveled twice out of state in his six-year tenure so far, both times funded by the town, he said. Over the same time period as Diossa was mayor, Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien disclosed four trips paid for by third parties. Pawtucket city records were incomplete, but the city funded what it called “economic development” trips to Arizona and Florida in 2020 and to Washington for the League of Cities and Towns in 2019, a spokesman said. (Some of Grebien’s international travel included the same destinations as Diossa’s, including third-party-funded trips to Taiwan and England. Grebien also went to Colombia, but he paid for his expenses on that trip, a spokesman said.)
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza traveled more often than Diossa did, but had about half as much international travel as Diossa over a similar time period. Diossa made 10 trips to international destinations. Elorza also did not use city funds for his out-of-state travel, a spokeswoman said. (Much of his travel was funded by the Providence Tourism Fund, a donor-funded organization that has also come under scrutiny separately.)
Central Falls is often described as “tiny,” but that’s just in a geographic sense. It has a population of about 22,600, and was the fastest-growing Rhode Island city in the 2020 Census. Pawtucket has a population of over 75,000.
Current Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, who was sworn in in January 2021, didn’t report any trips in her 2021 financial disclosure, but that was in the wake of COVID-19, which hit Central Falls particularly hard.
So far this year, the city paid for Rivera to travel to the U.S. Conference Mayors in Reno where she accepted a $750,000 grant check, and also partially funded a trip to Chicago in June for a speaking engagement at the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, the city said. The Aspen Institute’s Rodel Fellowship Program in Public Leadership has covered Rivera’s travel to conferences and speaking engagements in San Juan in February, Aspen in March, and Chicago in June, the city said.
“Part of the mayor’s job as city leader is to bring in new resources, bridge important connections, and grow vital relationships that will support the city and its growth,” Central Falls spokeswoman Sarah Dell said.