PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Former House Speaker Gordon Fox (D) pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges of bribery, wire fraud and filing a false tax return following an investigation that included a dramatic federal raid on the Statehouse.
Fox, once considered among the most powerful politicians in state politics, maintained his composure in U.S. District Court in Providence, but his voice broke when admitting to the conduct and acknowledging he'd likely lose his law license.
Outside the courthouse, Fox was asked if he feels remorse.
"Absolutely. Absolutely, without question," he replied.
Fox began to cry when asked to comment on the charges. He said he could not because the case is still pending.
"I don't want to be callous to any of the people in the state of Rhode Island, any donors, including the people close to me, the people that looked up to me. My family. It's tough," he said.
Tuesday's plea brings an end to nearly a year of speculation about what the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and state police were investigating when they raided Fox's home and Statehouse office March 21, 2014. Investigators said the bribe came to light only after the Statehouse raid.
Fox, 53, acknowledges he received a $52,500 bribe in cash and checks in 2008 to help grant a liquor license to a bar near Brown University when he served as vice chairman of the board of licenses for Providence. He also acknowledges making dozens of interbank transfers totaling $108,000, taking the money from his campaign account and using it for personal expenses.
Prosecutors and Fox agreed to request a three-year prison sentence. Sentencing is scheduled for June 11.
U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha grew angry as he described what he called "political corruption amnesia" in Rhode Island.
"You can have someone who's violated the public trust, and they're back running for office again eight years later," Neronha said at a news conference in an apparent reference to former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year after twice being convicted of felonies.
"It's in incredible privilege to serve the people," Neronha continued. "It's a privilege, not a right."
Fox was represented in court by former House Speaker William Murphy. Fox succeeded him as speaker in 2010 and served as his majority leader. Murphy was asked on the courthouse steps what he thought about Fox's misconduct, much of it while he was Murphy's second-in-command.
"We hope that Mr. Fox can put this behind him and that it can be a lesson to people," he replied.
Prosecutors say the personal expenses Fox paid with campaign money included mortgage payments, car loan payments, his American Express bill and purchases at Tiffany's, Urban Outfitters, TJ Maxx, Target, Wal-Mart and Warwick Animal Hospital. They say the diverted funds represent about 15 percent of the campaign donations he received.
While the campaign finance records Fox filed with the state showed a balance of $212,000, Neronha said the actual balance was $52,000. Neronha said investigators were able to identify $108,000 in illegal transfers out of the account. He did not explain the remaining gap of more than $50,000.
Neronha left the door open for going after the business that paid the bribe, Shark Sushi Bar & Grill, saying it was "under review."
One of the bar's owners, Raymond Hugh, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he didn't know his bar was involved in the case and was accused of paying a bribe.
"That's news to me. I have no idea what's going on. We'll get to the bottom of it. I'm sure my lawyer is working on it," he said in a brief phone conversation.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said his administration is investigating whether the bar's license can be legally revoked.
Fox was forced to resign his speakership after the raids, when federal agents were seen carting out boxes of evidence from his home and office at the Statehouse.
The Democrat announced he was stepping down as speaker the following day, but he finished out his term in the House, representing a neighborhood on Providence's upscale East Side. That term ended in January.
Fox's successor, current Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, said Tuesday that he was disappointed to hear about the charges and that there's no place for public corruption in the General Assembly.
In his law practice, Fox had represented businesses before the city's board of licenses and performed loan closings. He paid a $1,500 civil fine to the state ethics commission before the raids happened last year for failing to disclose more than $40,000 in loan closing work he did for a Providence economic development agency.
Fox also had a Statehouse employee doing his campaign books and acted as his own campaign treasurer, practices criticized by watchdog groups.
In June, Fox disclosed to the ethics commission that he had received a personal $10,000 loan from a registered legislative lobbyist in 2009 and had not paid it back over a period of years.