PROVIDENCE — Attorney General Peter Neronha is again asking state legislators to give grand juries the power to issue reports on their findings in cases where there have been no indictments but the public would “benefit“ from learning what was uncovered.
Neronha began the push a year ago, roughly six months after a Pennsylvania grand jury went public with a report detailing decades of sexual abuse of children by hundreds of priests.
It was an uphill climb then. The legislation never made it to a vote.
It is perhaps an even steeper climb this year, with a statewide grand jury calling in top aides to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello as part of an investigation into the circumstances — and subplots — surrounding Mattiello’s now-rescinded call for an audit of the heavily taxpayer-subsidized Rhode Island Convention Center.
“I understand there’s a lift here, but I think it is important not to be afraid to do things because you don’t think they are real popular, if you think it is important,’’ Neronha told The Journal during an interview on Friday.
He said he knows and respects the opposing arguments: grand jury secrecy is important in encouraging witnesses to come forward and not tarnishing the reputation of somebody who hasn’t been charged with a criminal offense.
“That’s why I think the tool has to be used carefully, rarely,’’ he said. ”There has to be court oversight. … A person named in the report has [to have] a right to object and … a right of appeal. “
“Speaking generally here, I think you have to evaluate whether or not doing a report would advance the public’s interest. By that I mean: a goal that would benefit the public, not just because people are intrigued or interested and want to know things and it’s kind of a fascinating story … or the players are interesting.
“It would expose conduct that should and can be corrected,’’ Neronha said.
He is not tying the request to any pending grand jury investigation or probe.
By forgoing a grand jury, Neronha will be able to speak, regardless of what happens to his legislation, about the results of his office’s review of clergy sex abuse in the Diocese of Providence.
Neronha’s office has been scrutinizing the diocese’s response to the abuse and trying to determine if there are any criminal cases that prosecutors could file now.
The legislation allowing grand jury reports has been co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Christopher Millea and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Craven, among others, and in the Senate by Sens. Mark McKenney and Frank Lombardi.
The legislation would create a multistep process: at least 12 of the potential 23 grand jury members would have to “concur″ on the findings and recommendations before the report was submitted to the presiding justice of the Superior Court.
The Superior Court would then have 30 days to notify anyone mentioned in the report, in writing, that they are entitled to “review the grand jury report.″ Anyone who fell into this category would then have 30 days to file a response to the report with the court.
The ultimate decision on whether or not to release the report — in whole or in part, with redacted names — would rest with the court. As written, the legislation says the court would have to be satisfied, for example, that:
“The report is based on facts revealed in the course of the grand jury investigation and is supported by a preponderance of the evidence. … The report does not contain material that is personal in nature and which is not related to any lawful inquiry. … The report does not disclose the identity of a confidential informant. … The filing of such report as a public record does not prejudice the fair consideration of a criminal matter.”
The proposal gets mixed reviews.
“There are many situations in which the public would be well served by having insight into the thinking of a grand jury,’’ suggests Roger Williams University School of Law Prof. Andrew Horwitz.
“The absolute prohibition on revealing what happened in a grand jury investigation, regardless of the situation or circumstances, does not provide the public with the ability to understand the workings of the system on important matters,” he said.
But lawyer Mattiello said his concerns of last year stand.
“We are presumed innocent until proven otherwise, and I think if someone goes through [the process] and no crime is found, the government should not be able to defame or slander you. … That’s the history, and you have to be very careful before you interfere or change that,’’ he said.
“Once you create the exemption, it is going to start to take over the rules.”
In the not-so-distant past, state grand juries issued reports.
In 1985, for example, a statewide grand jury ended its probe of the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation with a report pointing to “rampant” misuse of funds and a board that “failed” to do its job.
A March 1984 federal court ruling in a case titled DiFolco v. Roberts centered on two Providence police officers who had been the focus of a grand jury inquiry. Although no indictments were returned against the officers, a grand jury report recommended they be fired.
The officers sued, alleging they had been victims of an “unauthorized and unlawful″ report. While the suit was ultimately dismissed, the judge along the way opined that “neither common law nor modern Rhode Island law authorizes this sort of report.”
On Twitter: @kathyprojo