Ethics complaint against Shekarchi over 2017 wedding farm bill dismissed. Here's why.

The state Ethics Commission Tuesday cleared House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi of conflict of interest accusations brought by the Rhode Island Republican Party over his vote seven years ago for a bill that sought to legalize weddings on large farms.

Deliberating behind closed doors, the Commission found there was "no probable cause" that Shekarchi violated the ethics code to benefit bipartisan political donor and former Trump campaign co-chairman Gerald Zarrella, chairwoman Marisa Quinn said afterward. The vote was 5-0 with two recusals.

In an 18-page investigation report, Commission Prosecutor Teresa Giusti agreed with Shekarchi's attorneys that the timing of his work for Zarrella did not match up with his House vote in favor of a farm wedding bill at the center of the case.

And even if Shekarchi had been working for Zarrella at the time he voted for the bill, the legislation would have helped a large enough group of farm owners − more than 100 − to qualify as exempt from any conflict charge, the report found.

"By filing this baseless complaint, the Republican Party attempted to distract me from important priorities like providing safe affordable housing for every Rhode Islander," Shekarchi said in an email after the Ethics Commission vote. "My resolve could never be shaken. I am pleased this matter has been concluded and look forward to continuing to address the many important issues facing the people of Rhode Island."

What was behind the complaint?

The complaint from state GOP chairman Joe Powers, filed last spring just weeks before it would have been barred by the statute of limitations, centered around a proposed 2017 expansion of the state's "Right to Farm" law. It would have allowed the owners of farms with at least 15 acres of land to rent them for up to 10 weddings per year, even if the municipality they were in wanted to stop them.

When the bill emerged in the House, Zarrella had been trying to hold weddings on his 32-acre Gerald's Farm for years and fighting with the town of Exeter in court over the issue.

Shekarchi was House majority leader in 2017 and there is no record of him taking any action in support of the farm wedding bill besides voting for it. The bill was introduced by Rep. Gregory Costantino, who told investigators he was asked to file it on request from then-House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.

It passed the House on a 46-23 vote, but died in the Senate. Costantino told Commission investigators he never spoke with Shekarchi about the bill. They did not interview Mattiello.

Gerald Zarrella at his farm in Exeter.
Gerald Zarrella at his farm in Exeter.

More: House Speaker Shekarchi is a land-use lawyer. Is his housing push a conflict?

The Republican complaint case against Shekarchi said he represented two companies, Zarrella Associates LLC and Zarrella Development Corp., during the period the farm wedding bill was being considered.

But Shekarchi argued that Zarrella Associates LLC was controlled by Zarrella's son, Gerald Zarrella Jr., who had no direct financial stake in Gerald's Farm.

And Shekarchi's work before Warwick zoning officials for Zarrella Development Corp. started more than a month after his vote for the farm wedding bill, investigators found.

The Commission could have dismissed the case based on the finding that Zarrella and Shekarchi did not have an active business relationship when he voted for the wedding farm bill, but it went on to rule on whether he could have voted if he had been working for Zarrella.

Investigators surveyed all 39 Rhode Island communities and found that Exeter was one of six that banned weddings on farms and there were 163 farms in those communities with at least 15 acres. (It found there were 1,104 farms in Rhode Island total.)

"Had the legislation passed, Zarrella Sr. would not have been financially impacted to any greater extent than any of the other 162 farms located in the six municipalities that had bans," the investigation report said. "Accordingly, even if the respondent had been in a business association at the time of the 2017 vote, it is likely the class exception would apply to permit [Shekarchi's] participation and vote."

John Marion Jr., executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, wasn't surprised by the Commission's decision, but noted it was the first major investigation of a state lawmaker since Commission jurisdiction over the General Assembly was restored in 2016.

"This was a thorough investigation," Marion said.

He also said it was somewhat unusual for the Commission to dismiss a conflict of interest case when a direct business relationship didn't exist and then went on to comment on whether it would be covered by the class exception.

“Although we respect the Ethics Commission’s decision, we are disappointed with their dismissal of our complaint,” Powers said in an email response to the decision.

Rhode Island Democratic Party Chairwoman Liz Beretta-Perik took a shot at her GOP counterparts over the decision.

"The Rhode Island Republican Party consistently fails to elect candidates from their own depleted ranks," Beretta-Perik said in a statement. "Instead of questioning their failures, the Republican leadership utilized their time filing an unsubstantiated and damaging complaint with the Ethics Commission."

Apart from Shekarchi, the ethics complaint marked the total breakdown in the relationship between Zarrella and state GOP leaders, who he accuses of mismanaging the party.

"They couldn't raise a dime and did nothing for me as chairman," he said.

Zarrella sued the state Republican party for defamation last year. There is a hearing on a motion for summary judgement next month.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Speaker Shekarchi dodges ethics complaint after claim dismissed