Phil West spent years working to shine a light on corruption in Rhode Island government as the leader of Common Cause. Collaborating with others determined to dislodge the structure of favoritism and self-serving deals by legislators and other government leaders, West saw some things change.
He wrote an ethics complaint in 1988 against then-Gov. Edward D. DiPrete, which led to a finding of violation by the Ethics Commission and a record fine. DiPrete later pleaded guilty to related criminal charges, served 11 months in prison and lost his state pension.
In 1991, during the state’s credit union crisis, West helped organize the RIght Now! Coalition that won landmark reforms in ethics and campaign finance.
West hasn’t stopped. He’s documented what he sees as a web of deals and shadowy trading of power in what were supposed to be Rhode Island’s halls of democracy and justice.
West said many of the goings-on he’s written about in “Secrets and Scandals: Reforming Rhode Island 1986-2006,” haven’t been clearly explained before. And that amid the dirty politics, there were plenty of good people fighting to do the right thing.
PBN: Your book covers two decades of scandals in Rhode Island, up through 2006. What’s that relevance for Rhode Islanders today?
WEST: Rhode Island has always been infamous for corruption. Some of that reputation has been earned. It’s because of the particular scandals that occurred around 1986 and since, that we’re been able to break open some of that corruption and change the rules of government. The challenge for the citizenry is to build a government where you have checks and balances, where you have systems in place that make it easier to expose corruption and to prosecute those who break the law. What I hope this book will say to people is that it’s not enough just to cry out and say they’re corrupt. That’s the easy way out. What we need to do is recognize how corruption works, make it illegal, make it easier to prosecute corruption and make it easier for people to run against corrupt people.