Itâ€™s never a good day when youâ€™re the governor and the state Ethics Commission decides to investigate you. Itâ€™s even worse when the investigation involves a lucrative no-bid contract you are trying to get the General Assembly to approve. Itâ€™s even worse than that when you are attempting to introduce yourself nationally as a new and inspiring model of a Democratic politician.
But thatâ€™s the kind of day Gov. Gina Raimondo had recently.
The Rhode Island Ethics Commission, by a 6-to-1 margin, voted to investigate the governorâ€™s close relationship with longtime International Gaming Technology executive Donald Sweitzer.
Mr. Sweitzer is a $7,500-a-month lobbyist for IGT, and its former chairman. He is also a noted national political fundraiser who has an unusually strong political tie with the governor.
Ms. Raimondo is chair of the Democratic Governors Association - a position that is widely seen as a stepping stone for national politics, often including a run for the presidency. She made Mr. Sweitzer her top associate in that organization.
â€śDon has been a trusted adviser to the Democrats for decades, and Iâ€™m lucky to have him as a friend, supporter and constitution,â€ť she said last November in announcing his appointment as DGA treasurer.
After that appointment, Ms. Raimondo struck a $1-billion, no-bid, 20-year deal with IGT to provide lottery services for the state.
Certainly, the relationship gives off the aroma of a conflict.
State law prohibits government officials from using their position or confidential information â€śto obtain financial gain ... for him or herself or any person within his or her family, any business associate, or any business by which the person is employed or which the person represents.â€ť
The gain for Ms. Raimondo might be political contributions that help her establish growing national recognition as an articulate woman governor who combines liberal policies with a pragmatic job-creation agenda.
After news and opinion appeared about this matter, the Rhode Island GOP jumped, presenting a case to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. The commission Tuesday ruled against the GOP about bidding; the IGT contract does not necessarily have to go out to bid. But the commission did find that another piece of the complaint - that the governor stands to benefit - warrants further investigation. The votes were taken behind closed doors, and the commission did not explain itself about either ruling.
For her part, the governor says her deal is simply an attempt to retain a major Rhode Island company and its 1,000 jobs that, according to IGT, pay an average of $100,000. It has threatened to leave without a no-bid, 20-year extension of its deal, she said. Certainly, the loss of such jobs would deal a serious blow to the stateâ€™s economy.
For the deal to go through, the General Assembly would have to waive the law requiring such projects to be bid, and the governor was hoping for hearings this fall.
Undeniably, the ethics probe casts a cloud over that effort. The public, meanwhile, is still waiting for a persuasive independent confirmation that the governorâ€™s deal with IGT is better than what the taxpayers could obtain if the services were put out to bid.
Whatever happens, vigorous debate and intrepid news reporting about this story reflect how fortunate we are to live in a republic with free speech, a free press and a public that wants to fully vet any such proposal.