Ethics Panel to Review Donations from Lead Paint Makers to R.I. AG

July 10, 2006

Rhode Island’s Ethics Commission has agreed to look into a complaint brought against Attorney General Patrick Lynch over campaign donations he accepted from a lawyer for DuPont Co. when he was negotiating to drop the company from the state’s lawsuit against former makers of lead paint.

The commission will now conduct a preliminary investigation to decide if there is evidence to launch a full-scale investigation, Dianne Leyden, staff attorney for the Ethics Commission, said. The decision does not address the merits of the complaint.

The complaint was filed last week by Bill Harsch, a Republican who is running for the attorney general’s seat in the November election.

Lynch, a Democrat, reiterated that he believed the complaint was politically motivated, and said he did nothing improper.

Leyden said a commission prosecutor and investigator will be assigned to the complaint, and they will look at public documents such as campaign records to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to prove a knowing and willful violation of the state’s code of ethics.

At that point, they will make a recommendation to the commission on whether to launch a broader investigation. If the commission agrees to do so, they would have subpoena power and the power to depose witnesses, she said.

The complaint accuses Lynch of influence peddling and conflict of interest for accepting a total of $4,250 in campaign contributions from several people with ties to DuPont, including attorney Bernard Nash and his wife, who gave Lynch’s campaign a total of $2,500.

Nash, an attorney hired by DuPont, was the company’s chief negotiator of a deal in which it was dismissed from the state’s lead paint lawsuit in exchange for charitable donations totaling about $12.5 million. The lawsuit may now be worth billions of dollars after a jury in February found three other companies in the case liable for creating a public nuisance.

Nash gave $500 to Lynch’s campaign fund in June 2004, during the period the state and DuPont were negotiating, according to court documents related to the lead paint case and documents Lynch’s campaign filed with the state Elections Board. The remaining $2,000 was given in December 2005, six months after the deal was announced.

Lynch told The Associated Press that his campaign looks at each campaign contribution it receives before filing it to ensure that there are no ethical issues.

“Bernie Nash is no different in that respect than literally thousands and thousands of people that have given me checks in the last five years,” Lynch said.

When asked if there was any impropriety in accepting Nash’s donations, Lynch replied: “I don’t believe that,” and pointed out that Nash has given campaign money to attorneys general across the country.

Lynch’s campaign manager, Andrew Roos, would not give details on how the campaign vets its donations to ensure they do not present a conflict of interest, saying it was internal campaign matter. He said all the donations named in the complaint had been vetted.

In a letter sent to the Ethics Commission, Roos said there was no evidence to show donations from Nash exerted any influence on Lynch’s decision.

“The case against DuPont was dismissed because they will pay millions of dollars to clean up the lead paint mess in our state — and they are the only company to do so,” the letter read.

Part of the deal struck with DuPont directs some of the $12.5 million in charitable donations to pay for cleaning up 600 homes in Rhode Island that contain lead paint.

Nash has said there was nothing improper about the donations.

Harsch’s complaint also listed donations Lynch received on Dec. 20, 2005, from three other people, Francine Katz, Joseph Eyer and and Olivia Morgan, all of whom listed the Dewey Square Group as their employer on documents filed with the state Board of Elections. Dewey Square is a lobbyist for DuPont. The Dewey Square Group has not returned messages left seeking comment.

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