PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island Republican Party chairman Joe Powers on Wednesday filed an ethics complaint against House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, alleging that he pushed for a bill in 2017 that would have benefitted a client of his law firm.
The Ethics Commission complaint focuses on a failed attempt to amend the “Right Farm to Act” to allow up to 10 weddings each year on farms of 15 acres or more. Powers claims the bill, which passed the House but not the Senate, would have benefitted a Shekarchi client, Gerald Zarrella Sr., who had an appeal before the state Supreme Court to host weddings on his 32-acre farm in Exeter.
The complaint is the latest attempt by the state GOP to argue that Shekarchi, whose Warwick law office handles zoning and land use permitting, is advocating for housing and zoning legislation that would benefit his clients. Last month, despite Republican opposition, the state House passed legislation that would allow the conversion of offices, schools, and others commercial buildings into housing. Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat who was House majority leader in 2017, said the bill had no impact on any of his current or past clients.
“For about a month, we have been raising concerns that Shekarchi is pushing legislation which overrides local control over zoning and land use in order to benefit his clients,” Powers said. “Today we filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission, which provides evidence that Shekarchi has done so in past. The R.I. Senate should not pass, and the Governor should not sign any Shekarchi legislation which overrides local control over zoning or land use until the Ethics Commission completes an investigation into Shekarchi and Shekarchi discloses to the public a complete list of his clients.”
In response, Shekarchi issued a statement calling the complaint “totally without merit.”
“It is yet another baseless political attack from the Republicans, who have been opposed to my efforts to provide much-needed housing relief,” Shekarchi said. “The Republican Party continues to be out of step with Rhode Islanders who are suffering during a severe housing crisis. This is clearly a misguided attempt to distract from the important work being addressed in the final weeks of the legislative session.”
The complaint argues that Shekarchi violated sections of the ethics code that prohibit using public office to benefit business associates. It said Shekarchi was performing legal work for businesses associated with Zarrella by, for example, representing Zarrella Associates on a zoning petition before the Warwick Zoning Board.
The Democrat-turned-Republican Zarrella served as co-chair of former President Donald J. Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign in Rhode Island.
The 2017 legislation was designed to financially benefit a very small group of large farms in towns that prohibited farm owners from hosting weddings for a fee, the complaint states. And the bill would have benefited Shekarchi’s client more than others because it could have ended a pending appeal before the state Supreme Court appeal in favor of his client, the complaint claims.
“In 2016, voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution to give the Ethics Commission clear authority over the legislative activities of state legislators,” the complaint says. “The Ethics Commission should use that authority to investigate and fine Shekarchi. The Ethics Commission needs to make it clear that lawyers, when serving as a legislator, are supposed to do what is the best interest of their constituents, not their clients.”