Response from Steve Filippi
“Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government.” - Jeremy Bentham
Rich Tretheway and Marc Scortino, apparently as spokespersons for their Tourism Council (TC) colleagues, have tried to divert attention from their friends’ recently exposed transgressions by levying a personal attack on me. (August 5, 2021 “Sue me, sue you blues”.) Their distraction tactic cannot hide, however, the Rhode Island Attorney General’s (AG) disapproving July 28, 2021 ruling that the TC blatantly violated the law (the Access to Public Records Act (APRA)).
I take full responsibility for providing personal statements during a television interview on June 11, 2020 regarding my business and others on the island being
open. The television reporter approached me as an owner of Ballard’s; I did not initiate the interview. I am an enthusiastic advocate for the island’s businesses and citizens, but the reporter (not me) referenced my affiliation with the TC after identifying me as Ballard’s owner. In any event, nothing that I communicated in the interview was inconsistent with the TC’s mission statement and purpose, which is to “plan, encourage, promote, and market tourism beyond Block Island.”
After learning that substantive communications, and perhaps meetings, concerning TC business likely occurred outside my presence after that interview, I sought copies of the documents. Citizens, including myself, are entitled to public records under the law. I did not sue anyone. Nor did I “control” the process of obtaining copies of the communications my fellow TC Members hid and withheld from me and the public. I simply sought the information.
Instead of providing the documents, the TC’s legal counsel, on behalf of the executive director and the other members, withheld them. They left me with no choice but to seek the information through the AG, the governmental channel for procuring wrongfully withheld public records. The TC’s concealment efforts shockingly continued directly with the AG, which noted in its July 28, 2021 decision, “...we are very concerned that rather than cooperating in this Office’s investigation, the [TC] refused to provide information regarding whether such records exist and are maintained by the councilmembers. The [TC’s] supplemental submission should address whether the violations discussed herein should be considered willful and knowing, or reckless.”
My rationale for requesting TC Members’ resignations - and contrary to Messrs. Tretheway and Scortino’s baseless assertions, the trigger for all legal fees surrounding this matter - was the TC’s blatant legal violations and appalling gamesmanship displayed during the AG investigation. Despite all members electronically signing a letter sent to me from firstname.lastname@example.org, which correspondence itself contained official TC business they had discussed outside my presence, the TC outrageously argued to the AG that it was unable, and should not be compelled, to produce the letter and the members’ under-
As the AG logically concluded, “[b]ased on the unrebutted evidence in the record, we find that the Letter pertained to [TC] business and was sent by a majority of the members of the [TC]. As such, it appears likely that the [TC], or the members thereof, may maintain records responsive to Parts (1)-(3), and (5) of Complainant’s request. Such records cannot be rendered immune from the APRA just because they may be stored on personal devices or email accounts. The [TC] has failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that its denial of access to these records was permissible under the APRA. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-10.”
Perhaps the most troubling outcome of this unfortunate process has been the TC executive director’s failure to appreciate the seriousness of her organization’s legal violations. Ms. Willi told the BI Times on August 5, 2021, just one week after she received the AG’s rebuke, that no public records were withheld. The AG found otherwise. Ms. Willi also asserted that the TC would “continue to work with the AG’s office to provide whatever it is they request in this matter,” suggesting that TC cooperation had been the norm. The AG specifically noted otherwise in its ruling, noting that it was “very concerned that rather than cooperating in this Office’s investigation, the [TC] refused to provide information regarding whether such records exist and are maintained by the councilmembers...[despite] three separate requests to the Council for this information, on March 11, 2021, March 18, 2021, and March 24, 2021...” As the AG rationally concluded in the face
of the TC’s defiance, “...the [TC] failed to provide any evidentiary support that records pertaining to the Letter were not in the possession of the councilmembers
On August 11, 2021, the AG’s imposed deadline, the public will learn whether the TC is truly willing to comply with its legal obligations, failing which the AG will likely file a lawsuit to conduct formal discovery and perhaps seek appropriate injunctive relief and/or fines.
Last summer, I was afforded a valuable opportunity to promote businesses that had suffered greatly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I did so out of concern for the palpable negative effects of decreased traffic to the island due to the misperception that the island was closed for business. The TC executive director had herself noted publicly time and again that the island was open for business. On the very day the other Members secretly discussed official TC business (including my television interview), the TC published a blog on its website and social media outlets leading with the following:
Question: Is Block Island open?
Answer: Yes, Block Island, the island never closed.
I will continue to be a dedicated proponent of the TC and the individuals and businesses it serves. While I am disappointed that a brief television interview conducted in good faith to support the island led to clandestine communications followed by an unnecessary cover-up, I look forward to working collaboratively with TC Members who respect not only the obligation to promote the island as a leisure destination, but also the rule of law concerning public information.
Steven C. Filippi
Block Island Tourism Councilor