Rhode Island’s Ethics Commission has declined to investigate Attorney General Patrick Lynch’s decision to accept campaign money from a DuPont Co. lawyer as he was negotiating to drop DuPont from a lead paint lawsuit potentially worth billions of dollars.
Commissioners voted 5-1 to dismiss a complaint brought by Lynch’s challenger in the November election after a commission prosecutor said Lynch’s acceptance of a $500 contribution “gives rise to an appearance of impropriety, if not evidence of poor judgment,” but that alone was not enough to constitute an ethics code violation.
The report from the commission prosecutor also found no evidence the contributions were made in exchange for DuPont being dropped from the lawsuit.
Lynch, a Democrat, has said he did nothing wrong and that the complaint was politically motivated. The complaint alleging conflict of interest and influence peddling was filed by Bill Harsch, a Republican.
“I am frankly shocked and very disappointed that the Ethics Commission didn’t have the courage to step up to the line and take on the attorney general,” Harsch told reporters after the vote was announced.
Lynch said in a statement that the deal with DuPont was a “historic jump-start” toward cleaning up lead paint contamination. His campaign manager, Andrew Roos, said he was happy with the decision but declined to comment in detail.
The deal, in which the company agreed to pay about $12.5 million to charity, allowed it to drop out of a lawsuit that now may cost other companies in the industry billions of dollars. A jury in February decided three of the remaining companies were liable for creating a public nuisance by manufacturing and selling toxic products.
A judge has not yet decided how much, if anything, the companies must pay. But the state has said it will cost billions to clean up the mess.
The deal with DuPont was announced in June 2005, but Lynch had been in talks with the company for more than a year before that, and his office’s primary contact was Bernard Nash, a lawyer hired by DuPont.
Nash gave $500 to Lynch’s campaign committee in June 2004 at the same time the negotiations were happening. He and his wife contributed an additional $2,000 to Lynch’s campaign less than six months after the agreement was announced.
The report released Tuesday by Ethics Commission prosecutor Katherine D’Arezzo says Nash’s campaign contribution was related to Lynch’s private affairs but not his “official capacity” as attorney general. It says there was no proof the donations were intended to influence Lynch’s acts in the case.
Commission Chairman James Lynch Sr., who is not related to the attorney general, said the facts presented in the complaint, even if investigated and found true, did not prove an ethics code violation.
“This is a high-profile case, and the last thing we want to do is not prosecute it if facts warrant it,” he said. “This has national implications.”
Commissioner Ross Cheit, the lone dissenter, said he thought the complaint merited further investigation, citing broader circumstances surrounding Lynch’s agreement with DuPont.
The Associated Press reported earlier this month that Lynch and DuPont failed to publicly disclose that the Washington-based group receiving most of the settlement money was started by a DuPont lawyer and had close ties to DuPont. Questions have also been raised about why $2.5 million of the DuPont money is going to a cancer program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, rather than somewhere in Rhode Island for lead paint work.
The Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint with prejudice, which means Harsch cannot bring it before the panel again.
According to campaign records, Lynch also accepted donations from at least two other people with business ties to DuPont: Olivia Morgan, who is employed by the Dewey Square Group, a consultant for DuPont, who gave his campaign $250 in December 2005; and Joseph Eyer, who also works for Dewey Square and gave $500 the same month.
Morgan is also the executive director of the Children’s Health Forum, a nonprofit charity group started by DuPont that stands to receive $9 million from DuPont’s deal with the state.
AP reporter Michelle R. Smith contributed to this point.
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