PROVIDENCE —The Rhode Island Ethics Commission voted unanimously to launch an investigation into whether Governor Daniel McKee violated the law by accepting a free lunch where he dined with a lobbyist and his clients from an out-of-state firm that was expected to develop the Cranston Street Armory.
In January, McKee had a $228 lunch at The Capital Grille with lobbyist Jeff Britt and his clients at Scout Ltd. Executives at Philadelphia-based Scout Ltd., who were seeking $55 million to redevelop the Cranston Street Armory in Providence. The deal fell apart last week after McKee announced he was terminating their contract.
Executives at Scout have not responded to the Globe’s request for comment since McKee’s announcement.
The governor’s campaign said last month that it had reimbursed Britt for the lunch, which came after The Providence Journal first reported on the meal. Britt confirmed he had received the check.
According to Britt, the lobbyist for Scout, he and his clients were invited to a “fundraising lunch” by McKee’s campaign back in January. (The two Scout executives each donated $500 to McKee’s campaign on the same day as the lunch.)
Jerry Sahagian, the fundraising chairman for the McKee campaign, also attended the lunch.
“When lunch was over the governor left without paying the bill,” Britt said in a statement in June. “His campaign treasurer explained that he did not have the ‘campaign credit card.’ [He] asked if I would pay the bill and the campaign would take care of covering it.”
Rhode Island’s ethics code bars officials from accepting items worth $25 or more from those seeking to do business with the government.
But the Republican Party chairman Joe Powers argued refunding a gift from someone seeking state business only “after you have been exposed by the media” should be considered a violation of the R.I. Ethics Code.
“An old adage says: ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch,’” Powers wrote in the complaint. “If the Ethics Commission does not fine Governor McKee, that saying will need to be changed to: ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch unless you’re a Rhode Island politician.’”
After initially declining to comment, McKee campaign spokesman Mike Trainor told the Globe that this complaint was “politically... not ethically... motivated by the GOP.” .
“The campaign looks forward to the conduct and conclusion of this investigation by the Ethics Commission,” said Trainor.
Also on Tuesday, the Rhode Island GOP filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission over a $50,000 loan reported to have been loaned to House Finance Chairman Marvin Abney’s congressional campaign from John Brooks. The loan, which was first reported by the Journal, may have violated FEC campaign laws.
According to the FEC’s website, a loan from a person to a campaign is considered a contribution, and must be below the federal $3,300 individual annual limit on donations to a single candidate.
“Now Abney serves as the committee’s chairman although he accepted an illegal campaign loan,” said Rhode Island GOP Chairman Joe Powers in a statement. Powers also called on Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi to ask Abney to step down as the chairman of the House finance committee.
Abney fell short of qualifying for the Democratic primary ballot by not gathering the required 500 signatures. He did not immediately respond to the Globe’s request for comment.
This story has been updated with a comment from Governor McKee’s campaign spokesperson.