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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee is rejecting suggestions that he refused to support funding to rehabilitate the Cranston Street Armory as retribution for the developer’s decision to expose the behavior of two state officials on a now-infamous business trip.
The governor made the remarks Monday as he fielded continued questions after the attorney general forced him to release a bombshell email from the developer. McKee’s office had been trying to keep the document secret for nearly three months.
The email alleged state property director David Patten acted “blatantly sexist, racist and unprofessional” on the trip while his former boss, then-Department of Administration Director Jim Thorsen, did nothing to intervene. The pair were visiting a facility developed by contractor Scout Ltd., which is leading the effort to rehabilitate the long-vacant Armory.
Scout has been seeking over $55 million to redevelop the state-owned building, but McKee declined to include the funding in his initial budget bill last January or offer an amendment later in the legislative session requesting to add the funding.
“The state officials returned to Rhode Island [from Philadelphia] with a glowing report on the merits of Scout’s work, but excitement for the Armory project cooled when the governor’s office received Scout’s letter,” said Siobhan Callahan, executive director of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association. “This is a concerning timeline.”
But McKee pointed out his hesitance predated the Philadelphia trip.
“The budget went in in January and there was no long-term funding for the project because it wasn’t clear that it was going to be in the best interest of taxpayers,” he said.
“If it’s a good project, we’ll move ahead with it,” McKee added. “If it’s not, we’ll have to restructure it.”
Separately, Target 12 has learned the decision to hold off on funding Scout’s project happened at the same time that state employees have been raising concerns internally over the condition of the building and the millions of dollars it will require to maintain.
Target 12 obtained and authenticated emails traded between state officials and Scout employees in February detailing a litany of damages at the Armory, including a broken sprinkler system, water infiltration and plumbing issues.
“The sewer backed up and we have massive sewer seepage again in the lower ladies room,” chief property manager Jonathan Depault wrote on Feb. 6. “We should get a scope in these areas as the cast iron piping is definitely compromised.”
In one of the emails, assistant director James Fuoco provided an estimate showing it would cost $35 million over the next 10 years — or roughly $3.5 million annually — to fully fund deferred repairs and ongoing maintenance at the deteriorating building. The fortress-like structure been mostly vacant since the R.I. National Guard moved out in 1996.
Fuoco said his estimate was based on a 2019 report commissioned by then-Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration along with adjustments to account for the rising cost of building over the past few years.
“This is the absolute minimum the state must do to maintain the facility to a safe standard in accordance with this report,” he wrote of the $35 million estimate.
However, Department of Administration spokesperson Laura Hart said Monday the McKee administration now estimates ongoing Armory maintenance and operations will only cost $28.5 million over the next 15 years, or less than $2 million annually. Hart said the lower estimate is “based on actual historical expenses for the Armory.”
This isn’t the first time there have been disagreements inside the administration over how much money to put toward the Armory.
Last summer the Department of Administration requested $43 million to fund the structure’s rehabilitation over the coming years, citing new estimates of future expenses. McKee declined to support the department’s request, only earmarking $12.5 million for Armory maintenance in his budget bill — including just $100,000 a year in 2027 and 2028.
None of those amounts include any funding for Scout’s proposed redevelopment project, other than $450,000 to pay the developer itself for its efforts, according to the House Fiscal Office.
In recent days McKee has questioned whether Scout’s project is a good use of taxpayer money, and around the time of the trip to Philadelphia his administration hired another consulting firm — JLL — to “provide a comprehensive analysis of the developer’s proposal package” and whether it “is in the best interests of the taxpayers.”
The contract began on March 15 and is slated to run through June, according to a purchase agreement. The state agreed to pay $84,000 for the work, according to the document. A spokesperson said JLL’s hiring was in progress before the Philadelphia trip.
Speaking with reporters Monday, McKee again noted that there is an ongoing R.I. State Police criminal investigation into the Philadelphia trip, as well as a human-resources probe examining Patten’s behavior.
The state paid $1,535 for two round-trip flights to send Patten and Thorsen to Philadelphia, including travel agency fees, according to a spokesperson.
Patten has remained out of state work since three days after the March 10 trip. He’s currently on paid administrative leave making nearly $175,000 per year. His lawyer has attributed his behavior to a “mental-health event” but indicated Patten hopes to return to his job.
It’s unclear if the governor would let Patten come back.
“The behavior, if true, was certainly something that was not becoming of anyone who’s working with the state, or thinks that they’re going to continue working with the state,” he said Monday.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.
Matt Paddock contributed to this report.
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