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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Ethics Commission voted Tuesday to investigate a Rhode Island GOP complaint alleging House Speaker Joe Shekarchi supported legislation six years ago that would have benefited one of his law firm’s clients.
The state ethics panel voted 5-0 to open a probe into the complaint, which was filed last month by Rhode Island Republican Chairman Joe Powers. (Commissioner Lauren Jones recused himself from the vote and left the room for the discussion because he has previously represented Shekarchi in legal matters.)
Shekarchi downplayed the significance of the ethics panel’s vote Tuesday, calling the GOP complaint “partisan.”
“I look forward to mounting a vigorous defense against this political complaint,” Shekarchi said in a statement issued after the vote. “I will not let this partisan political theater prevent me from promoting issues that are important to Rhode Island’s future.”
The GOP complaint alleges Shekarchi violated the state ethics code in 2017 when he supported legislation that would have allowed weddings to be hosted at local farms for a fee. Shekarchi was House majority leader at the time and the legislation passed the House but failed in the Senate.
Powers alleged the legislation would have financially benefited Gerald Zarella, who was one of of Shekarchi’s legal clients and had been prohibited from hosting weddings at his farm.
“Shekarchi had a reason to believe or expect that Zarrella, his business associate, would derive a direct financially [sic] benefit if the legislation became law,” Powers wrote in the complaint.
The commission staff will now examine whether the allegations have legal merit. The panel’s investigators have broad authority to investigate, including the ability to use subpoenas. The probes typically take two to three months to complete, although they sometimes run longer.
Ted Nesi contributed to this report.
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