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Lynch and Harsch square off in battle for AG


Democrat Patrick Lynch and independent William Harsch are running spirited campaigns to replace outgoing Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse. As the election nears, Harsch has charged that Lynch's lobbying and State House connections make him poorly qualified to ferret out political corruption. Lynch, who as a special assistant attorney general handled drug and murder cases for five years, counters that Harsch has no experience prosecuting criminals and little knowledge of the office.

Lynch, 37, is the son of former Pawtucket mayor Dennis Lynch, now the associate director of the state Department of Administration. Patrick's brother, William, is chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party. Lynch is not related, however, to House Speaker John Harwood's wife, the former Patricia Lynch.

Lynch's job after leaving the attorney general's office in 1999 is controversial. Working for Rhode Island's top lobbying law firm, Tillinghast Licht Perkins Smith & Cohen, LLP, he buttonholed legislators on behalf of the firm's big-name clients, including RJ Reynolds Tobacco USA, Anheuser Busch, CVS and the Rhode Island Greyhound Owners Association. While Lynch certainly did not have the stature of the firm's top lobbyists, former Warwick Mayor Joseph Walsh and Peter McGinn, records at the secretary of state's office indicate that 17 clients paid a total of $121,163 for Lynch's lobbying services in 2001

In 2000 and 2001, according to the records, Lynch pushed to eliminate or reduce the capital gains tax and to exempt more employers from Rhode Island's Sunday overtime law, on behalf of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. Working for the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, he opposed a hopper full of legislation to control noise and pollution and prevent runway expansion at T.F. Green Airport. For RJ Reynolds, he fought a ban on smoking in restaurants, and opposed higher cigarette taxes and a ban on tobacco or liquor advertising within one mile of schools. For Anheuser Busch, Lynch opposed a deposit bill and proposals to lower the permissible blood alcohol level for drivers from 0.10 to 0.08. Lynch did no lobbying in 2002.

Lynch acknowledges his lobbying, but says he also handled criminal defense and civil cases for Tillinghast. Although records say he opposed the restaurant smoking and 0.08 bills, Lynch says he did not testify and merely "monitored" the legislation for clients. His experience at the General Assembly, Lynch says, will help him work for better laws.

Harsch, 62, contrasts Lynch's lobbying with his two-person practice, which, he says, frequently helps citizens to protect the environment. Although he was chairman of the state Public Utilities Commission under former Governor Philip Noel, and director of the Department of Environmental Management under former Governor J. Joseph Garrahy, Harsch says, "I have not been willing to sell my soul to the devil for my insider knowledge."

Harsch represented Democratic gubernatorial candidate Myrth York when she sought records regarding a multi-million settlement between the state and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. Past clients also include environmental activist Nancy Hsu Fleming, who was sued by South Kingstown dump owner Charles Gifford; Exeter and Smithfield residents attempting to stop gravel pit operations in their neighborhoods; and Saunderstown citizens seeking to prevent a cell phone tower near the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace.

Public documents show Harsch last lobbied in 1996 for the Rhode Island Shellfishermen's Association. The previous year he lobbied against the Providence Place Mall for the owners of Garden City Shopping Center and Warwick Mall general partner Aram Garabedian.

In 1997-98, Harsch represented Louis Vinagro Jr. in his battles with DEM and neighbors over obnoxious odors emanating from his Johnston recycling operation. Harsch says he agreed only to help Vinagro comply with court orders and that he severed the relationship when Vinagro stopped making progress. Referring to his insistence that Vinagro obey the law, Harsch says, "I made Lou's life miserable."

Although Harsch told a Providence Rotary Club luncheon, "My national politics tended to be Democratic," he is running at the request of US Senator Lincoln Chafee, with the backing of the Rhode Island Republican Party. Not having worked as a prosecutor is not a handicap, he insists, stating that criminal cases are only part of the job and "not rocket science or brain surgery."

On major criminal justice issues, Lynch and Harsch generally agree. Both oppose reinstituting the death penalty in Rhode Island because they fear the execution of innocent people. Harsch, however, endorses federal execution of traitors. Both support the $55 million bond issue for a new state police headquarters and municipal fire academy. Neither proposed changes to gun control laws or decriminalizing marijuana, and both want more small-time drug offenders diverted from prison into substance abuse programs.

In one policy difference, Harsch wants to eliminate all
parole and follow federal law, which requires criminals to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Lynch favors longer sentences for violent crimes, but he supports parole to monitor people when they leave prison. Lynch has made numerous specific proposals, including establishing a civil rights unit and ways to reduce juvenile crime. Harsch calls Lynch's ideas "distractions," adding, "We all know what the problem is. It's not teenage delinquency. It's [political] corruption."

Issue Date: October 25 - 31, 2002