A conversation with Attorney General Peter Neronha at the 49th Annual Meeting of Common Cause Rhode Island“Attorney General Barr, I’ve only met him once,” said Neronha. “for about an hour or so and I’m still not sure what to make of him… As Attorney General it’s really important to separate politics from what it is you do on a day-to-day basis. We have a job to do… and it’s a job where people aren’t always happy
Published on November 12, 2019
By Steve Ahlquist
“Attorney General Barr, I’ve only met him once,” said Neronha. “for about an hour or so and I’m still not sure what to make of him… As Attorney General it’s really important to separate politics from what it is you do on a day-to-day basis. We have a job to do… and it’s a job where people aren’t always happy with what it is you’re doing. So you’ve got to be guided by whatever compass you have inside you.“
Attorney General Peter Neronha was featured in a a conversation with NBC 10 Investigative Reporter Katie Davis at the 49th Annual Meeting of Common Cause Rhode Island Monday night, held at the Providence Renaissance Hotel.
Here are some highlights:
Neronha said that in his first months of being in office, what surprised him was the breadth of the mission. “On any given day I would be discussing with the criminal division on a homicide in Providence, i the afternoon I’d be talking about hospital consolidation, and then later maybe talking about environmental issues… The office is mall for what we do.”
On releasing the 38 Studios grand jury records:
“The truth is, under the current state of the law, grand jury materials are no by law disclosable. It’s not a matter of discretion it’s a matter of law… It’s unlawful for a prosecutor or a witness before the grand jury to talk about what occurred before the grand jury.”
Neronha added that he doesn’t think that oversight over the legislature, when there is no criminal activity in evidence, is not a proper role for the office of Attorney General. Neronha said that one solution to the 38 Studios issue would be to approve legislation that he put in last year to “allow the release of a grand jury report… [The report] is something the grand jury could issue, with the approval of the presiding justice, that has due process protections built in…”
Neronha sees such a report being issued once or twice per term, and in “cases of real, significant public interest.” It was as a result of having a grand jury report statute in Pennsylvania that the results of the grand jury investigation into clergy sex abuse was released in that state.
Consumer Protection Statute
“We have a really weak consumer protection statute in the country,” said Neronha. “Banking, public utilities, credit card companies. If you’re a regulated industry under our consumer protection statute, as interpreted by the Rhode Island Supreme Court, [the Attorney General’s office] can not do an investigation. In the wake of the gas outage on Aquidneck Island, the Senate passed a resolution asking us to investigate. We could not investigate… under the current state of the law.
“I think that’s a real problem for Rhode Island. I think Rhode Islanders expect their Attorney General to be their lawyer, be the people’s lawyer…”
In Neronha’s view, marijuana is not a gateway drug. That said, Neronha continued, “I’m not concerned about people using marijuana. as adults. I have concerns about child use… Ultimately, the people of Rhode Island will decide that question, directly or through their representatives, but what concerns me the most right now is the inability to detect whether one is operating a motor vehicle under the influence of marijuana.”
Neronha does not see a connection between legalizing marijuana and corruption, such as is facing Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia II, noting that corruption can happen whenever governments get involved. He urged people to come forward when they are victims of government corruption.
When it comes to fighting corruption, Neronha said, “If we don’t do it, who else is going to do it?”
Wyatt Detention Center guard assaults on peaceful protesters
The Trump administration is moving to collect citizenship data from state’s Departments of Motor Vehicles. Neronha said that the issue is one for the Governor to deal with.
“I will say this,” said Neronha. “This administration’s record on the census is not strong.” Neronha noted that when a court questioned the Trump administration’s motives as to why they wanted a citizenship question on the census, it was an extraordinary event.
The Trump Administration
Neronha reflected on working under Republican and democrat Presidents and United States Attorneys General. “This is different to me,” said Neronha. “We’ve reached a place in the government, in the justice department where the stated reason may not be the real reason. It may seem naive to think that that’s a new thing, but I really think that it is.”
Has the job of the Attorney General become politicized, asked Katie Davis, and how do we come back from that?
“It’s hard to say on the United States Attorney side,” said Neronha. Having met with the Justice department, “I would say the department feels very different inside the building. Frankly it’s a much less diverse place than it was when I was there, certainly the younger management.
“Attorney General [William] Barr, I’ve only met him once… for about an hour or so and I’m still not sure what to make of him… As Attorney General it’s really important to separate politics from what it is you do on a day-to-day basis. We have a job to do… and it’s a job where people aren’t always happy with what it is you’re doing. So you’ve got to be guided by whatever compass you have inside you.”
Neronha added that it’s important for an Attorney General, whether Federal or state, to push the office where it needs to go and not just let cases come to you.
“For example, wage theft,” said Neronha. “We have not done much in the office around wage theft, the misclassification of workers, organized labor and unorganized labor. We’re really making a big push there. We already have some results and I expect we’ll have more. But that’s something as Attorney General you’ve got to drive, because that’s not going to happen unless you do it.
“Environmental enforcement’s another one. We haven’t been doing a lot of environmental enforcement in the office. If you’re the Attorney General you’ve got to drive it to make sure it is one of your priorities… If you don’t, what you find is that you are doing defensive work most of the time.”
Davis asked Neronha if he would support a Federal shield law that would provide a qualified privilege to a reporter to protect sources.
“I do support that,” said Neronha. “I think the only context in which that privilege ought to be breached is in the context of national security… a real significant threat to security…
“I try to be accessible to the media…”
Neronha feels his office is doing good work in this area, diverting many drug cases out of the criminal justice program and into treatment. He also spoke about the necessity of reclassifying simple possession as a misdemeanor instead of a felony, so that people would not leave prison with a felony conviction “around their necks.”
Reforming our probation system
Neronha said that we need to embrace the probation system, even when it sometimes results in a person committing more crimes. “But more fundamentally, we need to make sure that when people get out of prison, they have someplace to go,” said Neronha. ” Because if they don’t, the odds of them coming back [to jail] are really, really high.”
One of the problems is the number of people on each probation officer’s caseload. Federal probation officers deal with about 40 people. State probation officers are carrying 250 or more people on their caseload, said Neronha.
“If we want to talk about criminal justice reform,” said Neronha, “That’s where we need to invest,” if we don’t, “then I don’t think our long term chances of success are very good.”
Neronha sees cash bail as an issue that will be taken up by the General Assembly in the next session. Neronha noted that a lot of people getting out of prison cannot get a driver’s license because thy owe the state or court costs and fines. “So there’s a job for them but they can’t get there.”
“Before we add eligibility for expungement, let’s make sure that the people who are already eligible can get their records expunged. So we’re going to have an expungement clinic in early December at the Broad Street office… Whether or not you get your record expunged shouldn’t depend on the zip code you live in.”
If you’ve served you debt to society, said Neronha, that should be the end, with one caveat. “If you have committed a crime involving public corruption, I don’t think you should be able to run for office again, because once you took that oath and broke it, I don’t think you should have that privilege. but short of that, godspeed, once you’re released.”
Katie Davis said that when it comes to the Access to Public Records Act (APRA), every government agency is following the letter of the law, which is that you have ten days to respond and a possible 20 day extension, but not the spirit of the law, because very request has taken 30 plus business days.
“Open government has been a priority of mine since taking office, ” said Neronha. “There’s no question that when I took office there was an ongoing issue involving open government. My predecessor’s approach was not one that isn’t grounded in law. It’s how you look at this…
“When in doubt,” said Neronha, “err on the side of disclosure.
“I will tell you, the number of complaints have skyrocketed,” said Neronha. “We have more complaints today than we’ve had in any year previous, over 150. That’s a lot of open government complaints for our team to deal with, and they are time intensive.”
Here’s the full video. Because this was a fundraising dinner, there is the sound of cutlery being used throughout, in addition to issues with the sound in the room.
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