PROVIDENCE — Attorney General Peter F. Neronha is cheating on transforming the office he has led for the past three years from a retreating organization into one ready and willing to take on behemoths on behalf of Rhode Islanders.
“We were a defense store when we took over,” Neronha said this week. “We really weren’t attacking at all and we changed that.”
During his tenure, Neronha opposed the $5.3 billion sale of Narragansett Electric to PPL Corporation, arguing that costs to ratepayers could skyrocket and service would suffer if it went ahead. . The deal was eventually finalized after Neronha agreed to drop objections in exchange for concessions he valued at $200 million for the Rhode Islanders. In part, PPL signed $50 million in bill credits to gas and electric customers of Narragansett Electric, and waived $43.5 million in money owed by low-income customers and other protected categories .
Even so, the irony is not lost on him that the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission has since approved a 47% increase in residential electric bills.
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“It’s just remarkable. It really is,” Neronha said.
The former U.S. attorney also intervened in the dispute over the Champlin marina expansion project on Block Island over what he said was an attempt by Champlin and the Coastal Resources Management Council to circumvent the regulatory process. public.
He denied the proposed merger between Lifespan and Care New England, insisting the plan was not in the best interest of health care consumers or health care workers.
“I thought we needed to be more proactive and objectively skeptical, if you will, of the deals that were in front of us,” he said.
As one of his biggest and hardest-earned accomplishments, he said he looks to the battle his office waged to challenge Prospect Medical Holdings’ plan to sell Roger Williams Medical Center and the Fatima hospital – a deadly clash that included threats to close hospitals. The state eventually consented to the deal with strict financial terms aimed at protecting the facilities from an impending crisis.
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And Democrat Neronha promises the same if re-elected.
“I’m going to be on the attack for [Rhode Islanders] every day. I will come to work every day to try to improve their lives,” Neronha, 58, promised in a Zoom interview this week as he continued to recover from COVID.
“If the fight is worth it, then I’ll take it. It is the role of the Attorney General, to be on the offense every day, and when we do that, we have the best chance of having a positive impact on their lives.
Neronha defends grand juries
Neronha, of Jamestown, served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Rhode Island from 2009 to 2017 after being named to the position by President Barack Obama. He joined the office in 2002 after serving six years as a public prosecutor.
Neronha this week defended the use of the grand jury in two high-profile cases, both involving law enforcement officers. He pushed back against criticism from his opponent, Republican Charles Calenda, that he chose to submit them to a grand jury to avoid talking about charging decisions because grand jury proceedings are shrouded in secrecy.
In both cases — one involving a Donald W. Wyatt detention center guard accused of driving his truck into protesters, the other a Newport detective captured on video apparently punching a man — prosecutors needed grand jury power to investigate the incidents, he said. Both men were cleared.
“The grand jury is not just a charging tool, it’s an investigative tool,” Neronha said. A grand jury, he said, is a method of obtaining sworn testimony and obtaining evidence.
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“We needed the grand jury to get evidence. … Where necessary, we use it,” he said, while pointing out that he had unsuccessfully pushed for legislation that would allow the release of grand jury reports in cases. that do not end in indictments, such as those involving excessive force by the police. and institutional misconduct.
He compared those cases with that of Pawtucket police officer Daniel Dolan, whom the bureau charged with three counts of assault with a deadly weapon and one of discharging a firearm while committing a felony. violence after determining he was unjustified when he fired a gun at a teenager in West Greenwich. In that case, and another that cleared Providence police officers of wrongdoing in an incident that put 24-year-old Jhamal Gonsalves into a coma, prosecutors had video footage and cooperating witnesses to rely on. support, he said.
Neronha also supports his advocacy at the State House for gun control laws. Governor Daniel McKee signed into law in June a law prohibiting the possession of firearm magazines containing more than 10 rounds, raising the age to purchase a firearm or ammunition from 18 to 21 and prohibiting people from carrying openly loaded rifles and shotguns in public.
“I don’t think the safety of Rhode Islanders is a partisan issue,” Neronha said. “Keeping Rhode Islanders safe is what the Attorney General should be doing.”
He also touted his efforts to change consumer protection laws to restore the bureau’s power to prosecute those accused of violating the state’s deceptive marketing practices law.
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“It’s not about partisanship,” he said. “This is about making life better for Rhode Islanders.”
He also backed a law that allows the state to charge parents and guardians who wantonly endanger children with criminal child endangerment, closing a loophole that previously allowed parents to dodge the responsibility, he said.
In a second term, he said he would continue to fight to make wage theft a crime.
“I think the Attorney General has a role to play in the General Assembly to seek changes in the law, where changes in the law would improve the lives of the people of Rhode Island and regardless of whether it is ‘firearms or child safety or consumer protection, as long as I’m Attorney General, we will continue to do that.’
He praised his civilian team for taking proactive and innovative approaches to the issues, such as initiating enforcement action against landlords accused of exposing tenants to lead poisoning.
“The office has enormous power, but much of it was dormant,” Neronha said. “We just decided to use it. I think we had a positive impact on Rhode Island.”
He praised his crime boss, Stephen Dambruch, as “probably the most accomplished prosecutor in the history of the state” and dismissed suggestions from his opponent, Calenda, that prosecutors were overworked and unable to use their discretion in dealing with cases.
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“There is a fine line between overmanagement and proper management. I think we have found the right balance,” Neronha said.
He said he had never heard of complaints internally or externally about cases stalled in court due to prosecutors being paralyzed by their superiors — an unlikely prospect, he said, because the office counts. currently about 14,000 cases pending.
“I don’t believe it,” he said.
As attorney general, Neronha oversees a $38.7 million budget for 2022 and a staff of 247 full-time employees. The bureau typically bills about 5,000 new cases a year, according to spokesman Brian Hodge.
Neronha also advocated for changes to state law to reclassify simple possession of 10 grams or less of certain controlled substances as a misdemeanor charge rather than a felony.
“Possession of narcotics for personal use is not a criminal justice problem. It is a public health problem,” he said. He believes he supported “common sense changes while remaining true to the office’s public safety mission.”
Neronha, a Rhode Island native who lives in Jamestown with his wife, Dr. Shelly Johnson, pledges to harness the powers of the office for the good of the state if he is re-elected.
“Rather than letting the work come to us, it has been very important for me, civil and criminal, to go on the attack and think of new ways to have a positive impact.”