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A conversation with Rhode Island Attorney General Neronha



“…the role of this office or the US Attorney’s office is very much one in partnership with law enforcement. I think the public sometimes misses that. [They think that] a case comes in and it is presented to us as a finished product when that is not at all the case,” said Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha.

On Thursday morning reporters representing many major news organizations sat down with Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha to ask questions and to hear from the AG about his legislative priorities. Neronha would not discuss any open cases, or even confirm the existence of any investigations into, for instance, Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, but he did talk about the work his office does and his approach to that work.

Neronha also talked about the ongoing investigation into the Diocese of Providence and accusations of child sexual abuse, and the work of his office when it comes to suing companies and bringing lawsuit money back to the state. I’ve broken it down by subject matter:

The Attorney General’s Office:

“The things that we did when I was US Attorney really inform almost everything that we do here,” said Neronha. “If it’s the standard on whether we put a case in front of a grand jury or if it’s how we comment on or don’t comment on investigations, I always go back to what the standards were over there. Number one, because I became comfortable with them in my 15 years there and number two, they were well thought out over a period of time by main justice in Washington and here. So if you’re wondering how I handle most things – I tend to go back to my federal experience to come up with those things.

“In any sort of sensitive, ongoing, proactive investigation, this office is working with law enforcement, in real time, from the beginning. It’s not a situation where the police do an investigation and bring it here. I mean, that may happen in a B and E or a drug bust, but in anything where this office is involved, where we’re going to grand jury on a significant matter, this office is involved, at a minimum as a teammate. And I would suggest that the prosecutors in the office here are really directing the investigation, because you have to look at the long game.

“These kinds of cases don’t tend to lay themselves out in a linear way,” continued Neronha. “You know, you talk to one witness, you talk to another, that takes you another witness. You may get to a point in a case where you have to immunize a witness and you have to decide which one. Then there’s this other sort of concept where you never want to be in a situation where you’re chasing target A, and A gives you B, or thinks they can give you B and use A to get B and you don’t get B. You don’t ever want to be in that situation. And that’s a situation we get into as prosecutors quite a bit, which is the evidence takes you to here, but can it take me to the next step and how do we evaluate the evidence to get us to the next phase?

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“So as you might expect when you’re making those kinds of decisions, the role of this office or the US Attorney’s office is very much one in partnership with law enforcement. I think the public sometimes misses that. [They think that] a case comes in and it is presented to us as a finished product when that is not at all the case,” said Neronha.

Given this, was the Pawtucket cold case a breakdown?

“I think Pawtucket is a police department where we’re working to try to impress upon them the importance of getting this office involved early,” said Neronha. “Without getting into a lot of detail, what we filed on the record yesterday was detailed enough and explains how we got to where we got in that case.

“I think any case that involves a homicide, any case that involves a driving involving death, any case involving public corruption – this office ought to be and typically is engaged very, very early, as soon as the first piece of information comes in,” continued Neronha. “When I was US Attorney prosecutors and police were sitting around a table coming up with a game plan. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum where one is working without the other. We don’t work without the investigators and the investigators don’t work without us. You know, you can’t make an arrest in the federal system and you can’t get a search warrant in the federal system without an Assistant US Attorney signing off on it. You can’t get a wiretap without an Assistant US Attorney signing off on it. That’s sort of the model we use here, and not just in this administration. I’m pretty confident that’s always been the case.

“I think sometimes there’s a little bit of a disconnect with some police departments, although that is improving with Pawtucket. I think sometimes the public doesn’t always understand that that’s happening at the time that it is happening.

“We are an investigative agency,” said Neronha. “That’s what we do. We are investigators. If we’re doing a significant case, the lawyers in this office are going asking, Who are we going to interview next? Who should we subpoena to the grand jury?

“This office is an investigative agency in tandem with our partners because who’s in the grand jury room when you’re taking testimony? It’s the lawyer and the witness and the stenographer. There’s no police officer in there unless they’re the witness. So this notion that that lawyers are not investigators in my view is inaccurate, at least in this administration. And that was certainly the case when I was US Attorney. Lawyers and detectives and federal agents working together get the best results because they bring different things to the table,” said Neronha.

On leaks:

“The Justice Department ethical rules are pretty clear that when there’s an ongoing investigation, we don’t talk about it,” said Neronha. “I can tell you that this office does not leak information. And if I had somebody in this office who was leaking it, they would not be here very long. I have a problem with leaks. They don’t come out of this office. I keep the information about the most sensitive investigations very close.

“The only time I’m ever going to comment on whether we have an investigation or not is when the public needs to know that we’re investigating and not because they’re interested. It’s because somebody blew up the airport, heaven forbid. And they need to know that we’re investigating and what the status of that investigation is. Absent a situation where public safety is in immediate peril, I’m not commenting on investigations. I never have and I never will. And and the reasons for that are, it is unethical and the reason it is unethical is because a grand jury investigation is an investigation, not a rubber stamp.

“I try not to go to the grand jury if I can avoid it because it limits what I can say afterwards. Some instances you don’t have a choice. You did it because you want to put people under oath.

“My overall take on grand jury… I view it as an investigative tool.”

The Public’s Radio reporter Ian Donnis asked about the outlandish dinner spending of Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, based on his reporting here. Does Attorney General Neronha take issue with that?

“Not from a prosecutor’s perch,” said Neronha. The spending by the legislative leaders “seems to be the practice [and] the Board of Elections doesn’t seem to take issue with it. My own personal approach is that I don’t use money that I raised to run for office that way. It’s just my view and I’m not a legislator. I ran for statewide office. My view is that when Mrs Jones gives me $5, she expects me to use it on things that are directly related to getting me elected.

“I’ll leave it to others as to whether or not they think that’s appropriate or not. But from a prosecutor’s perch, my view [is that] if people make peace with the Board of Elections, I don’t really view it as my role, in the typical circumstance, to act independently.

“As a Democrat, do you ever feel like a little bit embarrassed by the behavior of other state level Democrats?” asked UpriseRI.

“No,” said Neronha. “Here’s how I look at being a Democrat. Democratic values are my values, writ large. And I think most of us know what those are, at least I do. I’m pro choice. I come from a working family. I’m the first person in my family go to college, let alone law school. And so I kind of look at the world through a certain lens… I ran as a Democrat and was grateful for the support of of rank and file Democrats, if you will. But I’ve never really looked at the party structure. I’m not really engaged there, I guess. I don’t go to fundraisers, by design. I think that’s a bad place for me to be as Attorney General and let me, let me explain why.

“I think 99 percent of legislators do it exactly the right way,” said Neronha. “I don’t worry about cases where we indict somebody. I worry about cases where we don’t. If you’re kind of hamming it up with somebody at their fundraiser and the next thing you know, for whatever reason, they end up on your radar screen, when you don’t indict them or a grand jury doesn’t indict them, the public [has] a warranted cynicism. There’s a cynicism that the reason they weren’t indicted is because of this.

“I’m very, I’m very careful about that. I jealously guard the independence of this office. I try to stay out of the Democratic [Party] day-to-day politics as much as I can. I was endorsed by the Party. Grateful for that. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I was also the only candidate in the primary, so I don’t know if I would’ve gotten the endorsement had there been somebody else.

“I try to really jealously guard this place’s independence. I go to Deborah Ruggiero‘s fundraiser because she’s my Rep and I go to Dawn Euer‘s because she’s my Senator, but I don’t go the other ones not because I hink they’re bad people or I don’t trust them. It’s because this office needs to be separate from that. It’s really critical that the public believe that what we’re doing is for the right reasons.”

On retaining talented lawyers:

“One of the challenges here is finding it and keeping really strong talent because the pay is so poor,” said Neronha. “We start lawyers at $62,000 a year, which for kids getting out of law school with a lot of debt is not a lot of money. You go to a large law firm in Boston or here in Providence and they’re paying two, three times that. So that’s a challenge.

“Frankly, that’s how I came here when I started. My wife’s a physician and I was able to take a pretty significant pay cut to leave private practice in Boston and come here. And I’ve loved it ever since and she’s been great in giving me that opportunity. The challenge here is maintaining good talent.”

On the investigation into child sexual abuse allegations in the Diocese of Providence:

“I would say we’re about midway through the document review,” said Neronha. “At a minimum we’re going to write a report at this point and I suspect that’ll be later this year. I don’t think it will be before summer and I don’t think it will be this summer. There’s just a tremendous amount of information. We’re going back a long way. I have one paralegal that works on it full time every day simply to get through the information, collate it, scan it in, get it into a place where we can manage it, follow up with the Diocese, follow up with the State Police.

“There’s a meeting in here, either once a week or once every two weeks, where the team gets together and discusses the status. We’re working hard. There’s just a lot of information there to cover.

“What I anticipate is sort of laying out what we found in terms of allegations of abuse, what the Diocese response was, and whether in my judgment, I think that was appropriate,” continued Neronha.

“I think it’s fair to say from public reporting alone that there’s lots of people that went to the diocese and didn’t get satisfaction. We set up a hotline with Day One. We knew that given the history here having an outside agency be available to take complaints was important. And so Day One has been fulfilling that role.

[As For criminal charges], “I don’t know,” continued Neronha. “The challenge with all these cases around the country is that many of the perpetrators are deceased. We found this in Pennsylvania. If there are cases to bring, then of course we’ll bring them.

“The information that is not obtained through the grand jury, I expect to make public. Now if we get to the end of this process and there are six cases to bring, that’ll be the priority. This is all hypothetical. You have to be really careful every time you make a statement. I’m really wary there because I don’t want to be accused of impacting the jury pool.

“There are lessons in the Pennsylvania experience. [The situation is] unique because you know there’s tremendous public interest there, and being able to speak about it would advance the public interest, which is really my standard. In the typical case that really wouldn’t factor into it. In the typical case, I would just go to the grand jury and get the information because it’s either going to be a case or it’s not. [In The typical case] I’m not looking to shed light on something. That’s very unusual. I think the Diocese may be the only instance where that’s come up in my experience

“I know going in, based on Pennsylvania’s experience and what we know here from just kind of looking at what had already been in the in the AG’s records and the State Police records that the odds of getting to a significant number of prosecutable cases is low because the the vast majority of defendants are likely to be deceased,” said Neronha. “Sexual assault cases, even in real time, are difficult cases. The conviction rate of sexual assault cases is low. It’s very low. I mean if it’s 50 percent, I’d be surprised.

The role of the “State’s Lawyer”

“As the state’s lawyer in our civil division, we really do three things. One is suing on behalf of this state – the work that I love, frankly – and the other two things are the things we have to do. [Two] is defending the state [such as] when a DOT truck plows snow off the overpass and it lands on a car and breaks the windshield, or more serious tort-like litigation. And [three] are these sort of constitutional questions where we have an obligation to defend the state for the most part.

“But the fact that we’re defending the state does not indicate a policy decision by me.,” stressed Neronha. “The way I approach these cases is that I will defend the state because it is a policy decision made by the legislature and the governor. I will defend it unless I think it is unconstitutional or there is some other reason why I think I shouldn’t get into it. What’s that other reason? When I feel like the office is being drawn into something other than the real fight. I don’t want to be used by one branch of government as part of their back and forth with another branch of government. Sometimes I’ll stay out because the executive branch is fighting with the legislative branch today and they’ll be getting along great in eight weeks and I just don’t want to be in the middle of it unless there’s a really good reason for me to be.

“Unless I’m really confident that this law is not defensible, I will try to defend it,” said Neronha. “Because I think it’s my job. It’s not a part of the job that I love.I haven’t studied continuing contracts or evergreen contracts, however, I’ve learned recently that those are terms of art that were not known to me…

“It’s not work that I love though. It’s work that I would happily [give up] if the governor wanted to go hire her own attorneys I think she’s better off having us though, I think our attorneys are great. But if somebody wanted to do that other than me, I would happily hand that off – much like open government, frankly.

“The work that I do love in this little division is where we’re on offense for the people of the state, for example, environmental enforcement, which we have not done a lot of in recent years. I think we’ve really stepped up our game there. I think you’ll hear more about it this year,” said Neronha.


“We really have to be more active and thoughtful, in healthcare,” said Neronha. “We have the ability to weigh in on hospital conversions. We have a charitable asset power. When charitable assets are being moved or when hospital organizations are moving from one place to the other, are charitable assets continuing to be used as the donors intended? That’s a place where you can be an activist…

“My overall view, and I told my folks this yesterday, I’m going to push you as far as I can push you. Your job is not to get pushed. Your job is to push back because I’m always going to push you as far as I can push you to do something. You need to tell me why we shouldn’t be doing that or why we can’t do it. Because I’m always going to do that. The same thing is true of criminal cases. I’m always going to push you to the outer limits of what it is we can do. And if you don’t think we can get there, then you need to tell me.

“I view, I view myself as an activist AG,” said Neronha. “I viewed myself as an activist US Attorney.”

“Healthcare is a good example of that. I don’t think we were talking about healthcare [in this office before]. I think healthcare is the biggest issue facing this office in the next 12 months. There are others, but if we don’t get our act together there, if we don’t have a plan in place, we’re going to be standing on the sidelines and I don’t know that that’s where we should be.

“Why? Simply because we’re going to be asked to weigh in on it. [Also,] I don’t think as presently constituted we’re in a good place to do our job in that space,” said Neronha.

Right now there is one person in Neronha’s office doing work on healthcare. Neronha would like there to be more.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the trend in healthcare is continued consolidation, not not just at the hospital level, but at the practice level,” continued Neronha. “And what does that mean for healthcare and how do we use our charitable asset authority if we believe, as I do, that the principle issue in healthcare is insufficient access to primary care? How do we make sure that that happens, given our ability to influence how healthcare dollars are applied through our charitable trust powers? Are you concerned about there being healthcare deserts in the state? I’m concerned about about a state where 97 percent of the people here are covered by health care insurance, but can’t get an appointment with a primary care physician because [primary care physicians are] not where they live, so they end up in an emergency room where care is delivered it very expensively.

“I know the governor’s concerned about this,” continued Neronha. “I’m concerned about it. How do you weigh in on that? How could it come before you? Well, there are a couple of ways. One is through our charitable trust powers. For example, take Hospital B. Hospital B is in West Greenwich and Hospital B joins a network. So now they’re part of a larger hospital chain that decides we don’t need a hospital in West Greenwich, they can go to Hospital D down the road or they can go to our hospital network in Connecticut. Over the years, that hospital may have 10, 20, 30, $50 million in charitable assets. They were donated to provide healthcare to the people in West Greenwich. Before they can take those assets and pull them into the mother ship, which is now maybe in Connecticut or Boston or wherever, they’ve got to go to the court and say, We want to use this assets differently.

“My view is that this office ought to at least be thinking about what was the donative intent, where’s the healthcare need and should we require that those charitable assets remain in West Greenwich?” side Neronha.

“There are charitable assets involved with Memorial Hospital [in Pawtucket] that, before they can be redeployed, need court approval. When I talk about healthcare, it’s not just about hospital mergers, it’s about how we exercise that power.

“We need thought partners. We need independent thought partners in this office that can literally talk about what is in the best interests of the state from a perspective of healthcare. If we have too many people in the emergency room getting care that doesn’t need to be delivered in that space, or overspending and then not getting quality care, we need to think about that.

“I don’t claim to be a healthcare expert,” continued Neronha. “But I think the trend of consolidation is going to continue and we have to be ready to analyze those transactions.

“I’ll give you an example. We do a hospital conversion act review. The parties combining the hospitals have to fund our experts. In the Partners Care New England case it was about a million dollars that they had to fund for our experts to analyze the transaction. [But] There’s no requirement that [companies have] do that in an anti-trust review. So where do I find the funds to do an anti-trust review? That needs to be done, but I don’t have a $250,000 a year anti-trust expert in this office,” said Neronha. “So we have legislation in this year that would fix that.”

To be clear, how does the public interest, the consumer interest affect how your office looks at healthcare consolidation, asked a reporter.

“It drives most of it,” said Neronha. “It’s about quality, it’s about accessibility, it’s about affordability. I’m a big believer in primary care and not just because I’m married to a primary care physician. I know that my wife sees patients on Saturdays to keep her patients out of the ER. It’s cheaper. It’s better for them. They’re not sticking around, it’s a doctor they know. What worries me about healthcare is as we get bigger, are we driving innovation and flexibility out of the market? Bigger isn’t always better. So we have to be thoughtful about the decisions we make.”

Multi-State settlements:

“There’s another way to skin that cat and that is to use money that we recover from our multi-state cases,” said Neronha. “We’re going to bring in two and a half million dollars from our cases with other attorneys general. Most of it is consumer related. Sometimes it’s environmental. I would like to use some of that money to do this kind of work. Last year we weren’t able to convince the legislature to allow us to do that.”

[The Proposed legislation] “would allow us to keep a portion of the multi-state money that we recover to fund additional litigation, which basically means experts,” said Neronha. “I’ll give you an example. Let’s say that let’s say that there was an issue involving a public utility [and though]I have a great relationship with the DPUC, they are a separate state agency and they are perfectly comfortable with whatever the outcome of that issue was, and I wasn’t. Well I’m an office of lawyers. I’m not an office of gas or electrical experts. I need to find that expertise somewhere and pay for it, that’s what an expert is. I think our expert budget a year is $40,00. That’s not enough to do significant work in this space.”

“We need funds to do the work of the office, no question about it,” said Neronha. “If we had more personnel we could take a more active role in these multi-state cases. The state gets a bigger return, depending on how active we are. If California has three attorneys on it, they’re actively working at meeting, reviewing documents, going to court, they get a bigger chunk of the settlement when it comes in. Equifax, Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, you name it. Rhode Island tends to get a pretty small slice of those pies because we’re kind of there as a good teammate and all that, but we’re not boots on the ground.

“I don’t like beating our chest about things where we’re not overly engaged,” continued Neronha. “It’s great that we’re a good partner, there’s strength in numbers and all that, but as a result, our percentage is low. If we were more actively involved because we had the attorneys to be involved, we would bring more money back to the state. So we view it as a win-win. We will pay for those additional lawyers out of this fund. We will bring back even more money because we will be more involved.”

Consumer protection:

“Our consumer protection bill here is terrible,” said Neronha. “If you’re a regulated industry [state or federal,] we cannot take any action against you. If you’re a bank, utility, healthcare outside of the charitable asset context I already mentioned, if you’re engaging in a false and deceptive trade practice, this office cannot take any action against you.

“Massachusetts can do way more than we can.

“I’ll give a real life example,” said Neronha. “National Grid gas outage. Why? Everyone wants to know why. Investigate. Senate passes a resolution [asking the AG to] investigate. How do we investigate? We issue something called a civil investigative demand. How do we invent issue a civil investigative demand to National Grid or Enbridge? It would have been quashed because they’re a regulated industry. That’s why we need to get that change. A bank could literally decide they’re not going to lend in this neighborhood because only people of a certain color or economic means live there.

“This office could do nothing about it. The answer is have the Department of Business Regulation do something about that, let the Division of Insurance do something about it. I believe that this office is the people’s lawyer and that people expect this office to act on their behalf. So that’s a priority. Gun safety certainly is one. Grand Jury reports another, the drug reclassification bill. I think that’s a matter of social justice.”

On running for Governor:

“I’m not running for governor,” said Neronha. “I don’t want to. I’m not running for governor, ever. I ran for this job because I liked this work. I don’t have any ambitions beyond on this job.I expect to run for reelection. I didn’t run for office because I like running for office. In fact, I sort of dislike it. But I love this work. I’m very comfortable in this space. I know how to do this work. It’s not what my skill set is and I like being a lawyer.”

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Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.