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Ethics panel votes to investigate R.I. officials’ conduct during Philly trip, and Speaker Shekarchi

The Ethics Commission votes that complaints against David Patten and James Thorsen, as well as Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, “state facts that, if true, are sufficient to constitute violations of the code of ethics” and “to authorize a full investigation”

An e-mail alleges unprofessional conduct during a March 10 trip to Philadelphia taken by James E. Thorsen, left, then director of the state Department of Administration, and David Patten, then director of the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance.Courtesy of Capitol TV

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Ethics Commission on Tuesday voted to launch an investigation into potential ethics violations by the two former state officials who were accused of “outrageous behavior” during a business trip to Philadelphia, and it will probe a separate allegation against House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi.

Ethics Commission staff members initiated the complaint filed against David Patten and James E. Thorsen, the two former state officials who took a now-infamous trip on March 10 to visit Scout Ltd., a Philadelphia company seeking to redevelop the Cranston Street Armory in Providence.

In the complaint against Patten, the staff noted that among other things, Scout executives said Patten texted them before his visit, saying, “Please have fresh coffee (with milk and sugar) and the best croissant in Philadelphia ready for me upon arrival. Director Thorsen likes Diet Coke. Have a cold six pack waiting on the table in your conference room. You have three hours to convince us to give you $55M.”

Patten has apologized and resigned as director of the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, with his lawyer attributing the attributing Patten’s behavior to “a health issue termed an acute stress event — culminating from various events over the past three years.”

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The complaint against Thorsen notes that in an e-mail Scout executives wrote that “they” — meaning Patten and Thorsen — wanted to eat at a fancy restaurant in the Bok Building. When told the restaurant was not open for lunch, the executives were told “well you can call in a favor if you want $55M in funding.” So they arranged for a private lunch, and it was not until the following week that Thorsen requested an invoice to pay for the $250 meal, the complaint says.

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Thorsen, who now works for the US Treasury Department, has defended his actions on the trip, saying he reported Patten to human resources afterward.

Rhode Island Republican Party chairman Joe Powers filed the ethics complaint against Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, alleging that he pushed for a bill in 2017 that would have benefitted a client of his law firm.

Rhode Island House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi responds to questions from Boston Globe reporter Edward Fitzpatrick during the taping of "Rhode Island Report Live: Celebrating Civic Leadership" at the Rhode Island PBS studios.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

That 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.

Shekarchi has called the complaint “totally without merit.”

After a closed-door executive session, Ethics Commission Chairwoman Marisa A. Quinn said the commission voted to find that those complaints “state facts that, if true, are sufficient to constitute violations of the code of ethics” and “to authorize a full investigation.” She said Shekarchi filed a motion to dismiss the GOP complaint, but the commission will have a hearing on that motion at a later date. She said that at this point, the commission is just reviewing “the four corners of the complaint” and is not conducting fact finding yet.

“I just want to reinforce that an initial determination is a preliminary vote that should not be construed as an opinion regarding the truth of the facts alleged in the complaint, but merely is a vote to conduct an investigation into the allegations raised,” Quinn said.

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Shekarchi issued a statement Tuesday, saying, “The action taken today merely means the Ethics Commission needs more time to review the partisan complaint by the Republican Party. I look forward to mounting a vigorous defense against this political complaint. I will not let this partisan political theater prevent me from promoting issues that are important to Rhode Island’s future.”


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