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Suit tests board’s obligation to cover appointed member’s legal costs

It’s not commonplace for an appointed government official to sue a government body, but that is exactly what is occurring between a current member of the Providence Board of Licenses and the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, according to a September 2 report published by WPRI news.

Johanna Harris, a retired labor attorney, has filed suit against the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, arguing that Rhode Island law protects appointed officials from damages as long as that official is “acting within the scope of his or official duties or employment.”

The suit from Harris stems from legal fees incurred from fighting a complaint filed by lawyer and former state Rep. Peter Petrarca.

In his complaint, Petrarca claimed that Harris violated a provision in the code of ethics when she entered into a contract with the city to provide training to a city employee accused of sexual harassment.

Harris contended she did not know she was violating any code of ethics and that the city employee’s termination could potentially result in the loss of millions of dollars in federal funding.

The Ethics Commission dismissed Petraca’s complaint against Harris, ruling that Harris did not “willfully” violate the code of ethics by entering into a no-bid contract the previous year.

Harris says, given the Commission’s dismissal of Petraca’s complaint, that the city should pay nearly $20,000 in legal expenses. Instead, Harris claims that the city has “repeatedly refused to fulfill their statutory obligation” to indemnify her, according to the WPRI news report.

Read more here.