Feature

Shining a Light on Local Corruption

Investigative blogger Johanna Harris uses a career of legal knowledge to make a difference to the East Side and beyond

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Long before Crimetown thrust Providence into the media spotlight, we lifelong or well-settled Rhode Islanders have tended to approach the entrenched corruption for which our state is known with a sort of laissez-faire acceptance. We may complain about it to friends or on social media when a glaring new issue hits the news, but generally acknowledge it as a tradeoff for the more positive aspects of life in the Ocean State. Former mayor Buddy Cianci was a much-loved figure by many, despite his legacy of cronyism and collusion. Maybe we just aren’t sure where to even begin.

Newcomers to Rhode Island are often baffled by the state of our state and how things seem to generally stay the same regardless of changes in leadership; the establishment is certainly established. But if Rhode Island transplants object to the way things are run here, it’s rare that they’ll opt to stick around long enough to truly effect change.

East Sider Johanna Harris is a rare exception. After a 40-year career as a corporate lawyer focused on discrimination and investigating wrongdoing at big national firms in Boston, she is now enjoying her retirement by meticulously tackling one massive local issue after another on her popular blog ProvidenceRules.com, and has become a vocal thorn in the side of the city’s administration.

Harris has lived in Providence for 11 years; about four years ago, “I decided that I was going to retire and be a writer, but to write about what I knew – which was employment law,” she says. The book that resulted is called Use Protection. Unlike most titles on the subject, which are written from the perspective of company HR, “this one says, ‘Don’t rely on them.’ You have to protect yourself.”

While working on a second book about college rape and sexual harassment, Harris received a call from former mayor Angel Taveras’s chief of staff, Gonzalo Cuervo. Cuervo shared that the 19-year chairman of the licensing board was stepping down, and Harris had been recommended to replace him. At the time, a mayoral commitment to several local women’s groups mandated that when powerful city positions opened up, the city would at least try to find a woman to fill them first.

“My name circulated because I’d been doing this kind of investigative function work for years,” says Harris. When Cuervo asked if she was interested, “I said, ‘Sure, I can do this.’”

What she actually found at the licensing board stunned her: “It was a colossal mess. There were no policies or procedures in place. Everything I had done previously paled in comparison to the difficulty of this.” Nonetheless, she maintained a positive attitude and dug into the position, meeting with the board counsel every week, drafting training materials and policies, and putting together a handbook for “everything you need to know about licensing – because it’s quite a lot,” she says.

About a year later, Mayor Elorza was elected into office. He and Harris met briefly, and, according to Harris, he seemed impressed by her work. But Harris soon found out that her friend and fellow attorney, the Reverend Jeff Williams, would be replacing her as board chair.
“Mayors technically aren’t supposed to appoint board chairmen, but they generally do,” says Harris. “I wasn’t shocked. He thought I would then resign [from the board], but I have very thick skin – nothing bothers me.”

Williams chose to leave after a month, at which point Senator Juan Pichardo (D-Dist. 2, Providence) was appointed chair. Harris thought, “Okay, I can work with anybody, so I met with him and tried to give him my information – he wanted no part in it.” Over time, she realized that “the board was a cesspool of fraud, disaster, forged documents and inconsistent penalties.”

To document her frustrations, Harris began blogging about the licensing board. Soon she was broaching other topics as well: zoning issues with a suboxone clinic moving in on Lloyd Street, suspicious political campaign contributions, the shooting that occurred on South Street during this year’s PVDFest, the Ethics Commission reinstated by Mayor Elorza, and what she sees as an absence of the transparency that Elorza promised during his mayoral campaign. Education in Rhode Island is also an “overwhelming issue” she’s working to cover.

Despite her criticisms, Harris does not believe that she “has a vendetta against the city or against the mayor,” although that is often suggested to her. “I love living in Providence. Fox Point is a terrific area,” she responds. “I’ve also been on seven boards and been chair of three or four of them. The bottom line is I like public service, and I want to do positive things. I didn’t know the mayor from Adam; it had nothing to do with him personally.”

Harris vouches that “everything I write is factual – I don’t go on my feelings or biases. And most of it comes right from the mayor’s own words or the mayor’s staff.” She understands that few others would choose to take up such a role, and recognizes that her comfortable retirement and the fact that her children are fully grown adults affords her time and resources that working parents or individuals with multiple jobs do not have. She also possesses the experience and knowledge necessary to dissect extremely complex legal dynamics and make them understandable and accessible to the public.

When she and other friends have submitted APRA (Access to Public Records Act) requests seeking official documents, Harris says that the city has requested “arbitrary fees” of hundreds or thousands of dollars and deadline extensions before providing them. “They price people out of the market,” she says. “The purpose of the APRA law is so that you and I and everybody else can understand what’s going on.” When she has actually gotten her hands on such documents, “they’ve been deadly for the city.”

Harris listens “to real people and their stories. There are so many things going wrong that are harmful to the neighborhood; if I don’t shine a light on what’s going on, nobody’s going to know.” It helps that she enjoys writing and the investigative aspects of her prior work. Community plays a part too: “I like to talk to people, to get out and see what’s going on.” She seems to operate from a well of tenacity, fearlessness and thoroughness.

Many neighborhood groups and associations like Fox Point, College Hill, Downtown and the Jewelry District are doing “fabulous work,” Harris says. She hopes to “give people tools and to be sort of a sympathetic ear. A lot of these things are very complicated, but I think we have a very good group of leaders with the will and ability, and they’re going to have the tools.” ProvidenceRules.com has received around 60,000 hits since it started in December 2015.

For those seeking to effect change, Harris has some advice: “Everything I started out with, I knew nothing. But you can always educate yourself. Read the newspaper, read blogs, and then you have to follow up.” She also recommends finding allies. If you take a stand, “There are going to be people who don’t like it, who tell you you’re wrong or crazy, but as long as you know that what you’re doing is right, that’s what matters.”