In bid for RI attorney general, Peter Neronha eyes public corruption and opioid crisis as top issues facing office CAN HE HELP RI GET CLEAN?
WOONSOCKET – Back in 2014, when a special state commission began marketing some 19 acres of land in Providence’s Fox Point neighborhood that were opened up for sale as a result of the relocation of Interstate-195, then-U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha watched and waited.
Neronha thought the prime commercial real estate on the doorstep of Narragansett Bay should have been a powerful magnet for development interests, but it was taking longer for the buyers to materialize than he expected.
As a career prosecutor who made his bones putting ethically-challenged public servants behind bars, Neronha says one theory that came to mind was that the state’s reputation as a hotbed of corruption and pay-to-play politics might be keeping the business class away. Admittedly, he has no proof – but Neronha says proof is almost beside the point. The point is that the question should arise at all.
“That should not be a question on anyone’s mind,” says Neronha. “We need to send a clear message that we care about this.”
The way to send that message, he says, is by continuing to pursue public figures who use their positions unlawfully for personal gain.
And that will be his top priority if he becomes the state’s next attorney general.
A Democrat, Neronha served as U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island for most of the duration of President Barack Obama’s two terms in office, but President Donald Trump, a Republican, removed him from the position in March 2017.
The imminent departure of term-limited Attorney General Peter Kilmartin gave Neronha an opening to continue doing the kind of public service he says he loves. Neronha is one of three candidates vying to fill the void, including Charles Picerno,
an independent, and Alan Gordon, of the Compassion Party. While he may have higher name recognition than the others and a track record as a corruption-fighter, Neronha isn’t taking anything for granted – he’s been hitting the campaign trail to let would-be constituents know what the attorney general’s office would look like under a Neronha administration.
It was on Neronha’s watch that former House Speaker Gordon Fox was convicted of siphoning campaign funds for personal use, one of the most salacious public corruption stories of that era. But Neronha also won corruption convictions against a parade of public figures, including former Central Falls Mayor Charles Moreau; three members of the North Providence Town Council; and former House Finance Chairman Ray Gallison, who’d been quietly funneling himself grant money for an organization that didn’t exist.
Rhode Island may not be the most corrupt state, says Neronha, but it’s got rank.
“It’s worse than some places, but not as bad as others,” he says.
But it must do better. Even if it’s hard to quantify as a component of the political ecosystem, Neronha says he’s convinced that just the whiff of corruption takes a toll on the economy.
The state must change the narrative about its particular brand of politics, Neronha says, and one way of doing that is to continue to aggressively attack public corruption through the criminal justice system.
“The work I was doing as U.S. attorney I think is unfinished,” he says. “I think that work is going to need to continue to be done and I think I have the independence and experience to do it.”
Reform for non-violent offenders
Another central pillar of his administration will be criminal justice reform. By that Neronha means he would shift some resources away from adjudicating non-violent offenses so that prosecutors can spend more time addressing offenders who are “driving violent crime.” The shift in emphasis would not only reduce prison costs but allow prosecutors to focus resources on crimes that have the most negative impacts on society.
Similarly, Neronha is also calling for an expansion of “diversion courts” to provide an alternative to criminal sentences for non-violent drug offenders who are struggling with addiction and substance abuse issues. Such courts would be empowered to give offenders an alternative to jail by opting for treatment, counseling and other avenues to address their problems.
Neronha said that the General Assembly has already passed legislation authorizing the judiciary to establish a diversion court.
“It’s not up and running yet but it should be,” he said. “I want diversion to be as robust as possible. The more the courts support it, the more robust it will be.”
In some circles, drug addiction – like alcoholism – is still viewed as the result of some character flaw or moral shortcoming that can be ex- punged through the application of a punitive response. But Neronha said, “the research doesn’t support that.”
Addiction, he says, can happen to anyone and is best handled in a therapeutic setting – not a prison. Addiction cuts across all income and demographic groups and law enforcement should embrace the problem as a “public health crisis.” The scourge of opioids is too widespread for courts to punish their way out of it.
“Locking people up is not the answer to this crisis,” he says.
In a related vein, Neronha says the state doesn’t do a good enough job of preparing prisoners for a productive work life after they’re released. The state pays for that neglect in increased incarceration costs because ex-offenders who are released into society without skills have nowhere to go, except back to prison, in Neronha’s view.
“We’ve got to get ‘em back in the workforce because, what if we don’t?” he says. “They going to re-offend.”
Approaching the opioid crisis
As U.S. attorney, Neronha embarked on a two-pronged approach to the reigning crisis of opioid overdose fatalities that kicked into high gear during the last several years. He and his staffers visited scores of schools and libraries, offering testimonials from recovering addicts and showing films about the risks of heroin, fentanyl and opioid pharmaceuticals. At the same time, Neronha’s office coordinated a series of multi-agency investigations focusing on networks of criminals trafficking in firearms and narcotics.
As attorney general, Neronha says he would continue to embark on such a strategy, exploiting the “bully pulpit” role of the office to shape public attitudes through outreach and intervention, while employing the traditional tools of law enforcement to curb drug trafficking and related crime.
If elected, Neronha would become the state’s top cop with recreational marijuana legal in three of the six New England states, including neighboring Massachusetts, which is poised to begin opening retail stores offering a range of products, including marijuana-infused candies, pastries and other edibles.
The pro-legalization lobby continues to prod the legislature toward an freer cannabis future, but Neronha is clearly cool to the trend.
“As a parent of an 18 and a 21 year old I don’t want them smoking marijuana,” he says. But Neronha said, “I’m practical. Legalization is going to be here eventually. The question is do we have a system in place to do it the right way.”
It’s a bees-nest issue with myriad ramifications for the law enforcement and the regulatory community, said Nerohna. At some point, states will have to figure out a benchmark for driving legally under the influence of marijuana, much the same as alcohol. Theaters who sell alcohol during intermission, like the Wang Center in Massachusetts, will have to decide whether weed and wine is a good mix for a dramatic interlude. Landlords will want guidance on whose rights matter more in a multifamily setting – pot-smokers or their neighbors who don’t want to smell it wafting into their homes.
“It’s complicated, it’s not going to be an easy transition,” says Neronha, but if there’s an upside, Rhode island is in a good position to keep an eye on how neighboring Massachusetts handles it and learn from the Bay State’s trials.
A descendant of a Portuguese fisherman who came to the U.S. in the late 1800s, Neronha’s father served in the Korean War and later joined the Ferry Company when he came home. He retired as a toll collector on the Pell Bridge, but he’s still working today at the age of 89 as a bus monitor. Neronha’s mother was the youngest child of German farmers who came here as a young woman in the 1950s and worked for a time in a bakery.
Born in Jamestown, he’s lived there most of his life. After graduating from Boston College School of Law in 1989, he worked for a time at the Boston-based law firm of Goodwin Procter and lived in the city for a while. That’s where he met his wife, Shelly, a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford Medical School who now works as a primary care physician. She and Neronha have two boys, Zach and Josh.
Before he became U.S. attorney, Neronha was an assistant U.S. attorney and before that, a state prosecutor in the office of former Attorney General Jeffrey Pine.