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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Ethics Commission voted Tuesday to pursue an investigation into two former state directors who took a now-infamous trip to Philadelphia in March.
The six-member panel voted unanimously to initiate the investigation into the actions of both David Patten, the state’s former property director, and Jim Thorsen, the former director of the R.I. Department of Administration.
The commission’s staff will now embark on an investigation into whether the two may have violated a state law that bar public officials from receiving any financial gain or other reward from their state positions, as well as an Ethics Commission regulation which bars officials from accepting any single item worth over $25 or collection of gifts worth over $75 from someone with business before the government.
The vote by the Ethics Commission is the latest wrinkle in an embarrassing saga for the Gov. Dan McKee administration after Target 12 and The Providence Journal won a public-records complaint forcing the governor’s office to release an email detailing allegations of outrageous behavior by Patten and Thorsen when they visited a state contractor in Philadelphia on March 10. The trip has since evoked national headlines and some of the details have become punchlines on social media.
Neither Thorsen nor Patten were at the meeting for the vote. Patten’s attorney Michael Lynch said after the vote that this was merely a first step in the process and not a finding of fault.
Patten resigned earlier this month from his $174,000-a-year state job under mounting pressure. Through an attorney he attributed his behavior to “a mental-health event.” Thorsen, who tendered his resignation prior to the trip, has since taken a job at the U.S. Treasury Department but said he made the best of a bad situation.
The R.I. State Police and attorney general’s office are also looking into whether any crimes were committed on the taxpayer-funded trip.
Patten and Thorsen were in Philadelphia to meet with executives from Scout Ltd. Company executives later said Patten made a series of demands for special treatment — including lunch at a closed restaurant and free vegan cheese — in exchange for supporting over $55 million in state funds for Scout’s proposed redevelopment of the long-vacant Cranston Street Armory in Providence.
Thorsen told him at least one item was “de minimis,” using State House shorthand for a gift that doesn’t trigger ethics rules.
John Marion, executive director of good government group Common Cause Rhode Island, said the commission’s investigators — some retired law enforcement — have broad power to conduct the investigation including the use of subpoenas. He said he expects the commission to be presented with facts in two to three months.
Marion said complaints are often resolved with a settlement between the accused and the commission.
Since the email was released publicly, McKee has also come under fire for a January lunch he had with Scout officials and their lobbyist, Jeff Britt.
The $228 meal — which was paid for by Britt at the time — evoked criticism and spurred the Rhode Island Republican Party to call on the Ethics Commission to expand the Philadelphia probe to include an examination of whether the lunch violated any state ethics law.
McKee has since said he was reimbursing Britt for the lunch, claiming he wasn’t aware at the time he was meeting with Scout officials. Britt has publicly challenged the governor on his version of events.
Ethics Commission executive director Jason Gramitt declined to comment Tuesday on whether the panel would be examining the governor’s lunch.
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