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 Call - - FRONT PAGE - By RUSS OLIVO ro­[email protected]­et­call.com

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.

Why?

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.

Ernest A. Brown photo

For­mer U.S. At­tor­ney Peter F. Neronha, of Jamestown, dis­cusses his long ca­reer, his fam­ily, and fu­ture plans as Rhode Is­land At­tor­ney Gen­eral while sit­ting down for an in­ter­view with ed­i­tors from the Woonsocket Call and Paw­tucket Times on Thurs­day.

Ernest A. Brown photo

For­mer U.S. At­tor­ney Peter F. Neronha, of Jamestown, dis­cusses his vi­sion for the of­fice of At­tor­ney Gen­eral as he be­gins his cam­paign for the Rhode Is­land At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s seat in the Novem­ber elec­tion dur­ing a sit-down with ed­i­tors at the Woonsocket Call on Thurs­day.

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