PROVIDENCE – Luis Aponte broke a lot of barriers during his time in Providence politics. He was the first Latino to be elected to the City Council, the first Latino majority leader, and later became the first Latino council president. At one point, his supporters thought he’d be mayor someday.
But Aponte’s political career came to a crashing end Monday when the Democrat agreed to plead no contest to embezzling from his campaign account and resign the Ward 10 council seat he’s held since 1999. Rhode Island law requires elected officials who are convicted or plead no contest to a felony charge to step down from their position.
The abrupt plea deal came just over a month before Aponte was scheduled to go to trial in a two-year-old case that earlier cost him his post as council president. But he was still re-elected by voters in city’s Lower South Providence and Washington Park neighborhoods last year.
Aponte, 56, did not respond to multiple requests for comment Monday. But those who know him best said they were disappointed to see a once-promising politician come unraveled in recent years as elections officials and prosecutors started scrutinizing his finances.
“There’s no one who understands city government better than Luis Aponte,” state Representative John Lombardi told the Globe. “This guy was a can’t-miss as far as being the mayor of Providence.”
Aponte was born in Puerto Rico, but he grew up in Brooklyn before moving to Rhode Island as a teenager. He became an activist in his 20s, part of the first wave of Latinos entering politics in Rhode Island in the 1990s. He narrowly lost a race for council in 1994 but cruised to victory four years later.
His rise in city politics came fast.
A shrewd political operative with a knack for condensing complicated policy discussions into talking points the average resident could understand, Aponte was tapped by Lombardi to be majority leader in 2003. One of his top accomplishments early in his career was leading the effort to create panel to provide civilian oversight over the Providence police department.
Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a former chairman of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, said Aponte was a well-liked politician who delivered for his community.
“I describe him as the man who would be king,” Rodriguez said. “He could have been mayor of the city. He could have made it really far because he was an incredibly smart guy.”
Aponte’s collapse came slowly over the last decade, ultimately landing him in handcuffs.
Despite his popularity, Aponte never seriously considered a run for mayor. Content with winning council elections every four years, he stopped filing quarterly campaign finance reports with the Rhode Island Board of Election for several years, running up fines that exceed $50,000.
In 2012, he was sued by now-state Representative Gregory Costantino for allegedly convincing the city tax assessor’s office to issue a $37,000 check meant for Costantino in his name after a property tax sale fell through. In court documents, Aponte admitted he misused the funds. He was never charged with a crime, but Costantino won a large judgment against him. Aponte never paid and later had the debt discharged in bankruptcy.
A year later, Aponte lost his job at the Urban League of Rhode Island. He has never held full-time employment in the years that followed, at times relying solely on his $19,000 salary on the City Council. For several years, court records show, Aponte didn’t have a personal bank account.
But Aponte managed to win the council presidency in 2015 by promising the majority of his colleagues he would clean up his campaign paperwork and provide the veteran political leadership the city needed at a time newcomer Jorge Elorza had been elected mayor.
Aponte’s majority leader, Kevin Jackson, was arrested in 2016 and remains in prison after pleading no contest to embezzling from a youth sports organization he co-founded and stealing from his account. Voters recalled Jackson from office prior to his plea deal.
Aponte was charged in 2017 with embezzling nearly $14,000 from his campaign account and using the money to pay for personal expenses, including groceries, gas and monthly Netflix charges. He resigned as president, but remained on the council as the case progressed and then narrowly won re-election last year.
Peter Neronha, a former US attorney who was elected attorney general last year, said Aponte’s case was one of his top priorities when he entered office in January.
“These cases don’t get better with age,” Neronha said Monday.
Aponte’s plea deal will spare him from serving a prison sentence, but Neronha said he would only sign off on the agreement if the councilman stepped down from his elected office. Three related charges against Aponte were dropped. Neronha called it a clear case of political corruption.
“When you start living off the money you raise, you feel like you owe the people who contributed something more than to just do the best job you can,” Neronha said.
A special election for the Ward 10 seat will be scheduled for later this year.
Longtime critics of Aponte quickly pounced after the plea deal was announced. Councilman David Salvatore accused him of using his council seat as a bargaining chip with prosecutors.
“Instead of gracefully stepping aside and not run for reelection, Councilman Aponte let his ego and greed continue to chart his course,” Salvatore said.
Elorza, who enjoyed a good working relationship with Aponte as president but later clashed with the councilman after the embezzlement charge, called it “deeply disappointing that once again an elected official has violated the trust of the people of Providence. “
Still, Aponte’s closest allies, like attorney and activist Shannah Kurland, remain convinced he did more good than harm in Providence. Kurland said “he gave all of himself” to build a movement for working class residents who make up the majority of the city.
“He has inspired countless people to be leaders in our neighborhoods,” Kurland said.