PROVIDENCE, September 2, 2015 – Johanna Harris has filed suit in Superior Court against Providence City officials to recover the expenses that she incurred while defending herself against legal attacks intended to interfere with her official duties as Commissioner and former Chair of the Providence Board of Licenses. Starting in August 2014, Peter Petrarca, an attorney who represented numerous clients before the Licensing Board, filed an ethics complaint against Ms. Harris and then sought a court order to force her recusal from cases involving his clients on the grounds that his ethics complaint made it impossible for her to be impartial. Ultimately, the Rhode Island Ethics Commission dismissed Mr. Petrarca’s ethics complaint, while his suit to have Ms. Harris recused was also dismissed.
Citing a Rhode Island law amended by the General Assembly in 2009 that requires cities and towns to indemnify public officials, Harris has demanded that City Solicitor Jeffrey Dana, Mayor Jorge Elorza, and Chairman of the City Council’s Claims Committee Sam Zurier comply with their obligation under the law and pay her accumulated legal expenses of nearly $18,000. According to a recent Rhode Island Supreme Court decision, Harris contends, the City has no choice but to indemnify her.
Cities like Pawtucket and Central Falls have passed specific ordinances to implement the state law. But Providence has not passed any ordinance or publicly issued any rules that would put City employees on notice as to the procedures for seeking legal representation or indemnification in the event that they become the target of a lawsuit. “Outside of public notice or scrutiny,” Harris asserts, “the Respondents have effectively set up a hidden system … that has permitted them to pick and choose which City officials they will indemnify based on the content of their speech.”
City Solicitor Dana offered to reimburse only $3,000 of Harris’ expenses, claiming that he lacked the authority to exceed that amount. However, nothing bars the City Solicitor from recommending to Mayor Elorza or to Claims Committee Chairman Samuel Zurier that the City pay a settlement in excess of $3,000. Mr. Dana’s “hiding behind this artificial non-limit of $3,000” is only one vehicle that has permitted the City to pick and choose whom to indemnify.
Harris further cited the City’s practice of indemnifying an official charged with an ethics violation “only if that individual is subsequently exonerated.” “Such a policy of conditional indemnification,” Harris notes, “puts officials like Petitioner in the precarious if not untenable position of accumulating legal expenses without knowing whether the City of Providence will pay for them.”