As the US Attorney, Peter Neronha developed a reputation for putting Rhode Island elected officials behind bars – including former House Speaker Gordon Fox, former House Finance Committee Chairman Ray Gallison, former Central Falls Mayor Charles Moreau, and three former North Providence city councilors. Building on this reputation seems a central reason why he wants to be Rhode Island’s Attorney General.
“You can figure out what I’m going to do by what I’ve already done,” he said. “Public integrity has to be the number one priority. And not just because we have such a track record here. I don’t think we’re headed for a golden age of good conduct.”
Neronha has been a prosecutor since 1992, when he went to work in the AG’s office. “I started at the bottom at District Court,” he said, moving to the US Attorney’s office in 2002 where he worked narcotics and firearms cases and “ultimately I ended up doing organized crime work, public corruption, white collar cases.”
President Obama appointed him to lead Rhode Island’s US Attorney’s office office in 2008 and Trump dismissed him upon assuming office. “When President Trump asked me and 45 of my closest friends to move on I had to decide whether or not I was done,” he said. “And I pretty quickly realized that I felt like I had more work to do.”
He supports bans on guns in schools and high-capacity magazines, and is open-minded to re-banning semi-automatic weapons – all issues the legislature will likely grapple with this year. He suggested more police officers in schools might help reduce random shootings and he prefers a proactive approach to gang violence.
“Law enforcement knows who is shooting people,” he said. “We need to focus on those people. Identify who they are, identify what they are doing, and build cases around that before they shoot somebody.”
Neronha talked about being equally tough on environmental crimes.
“We ought to be doing strong environmental enforcement here in Rhode Island,” he said. “What that looks like to me is invigorating a unit in the AG’s office on the criminal and civil side to really take that on. To triage the largest polluters in Rhode Island. Have regular contact, not just with DEM, but with environmental advocacy groups to talk about, frankly to get leads on who those largest polluters are.”
He’s open to the idea of moving open government enforcement out of the Attorney General’s office. “If that’s something that diminishes confidence in the mission of the AG’s office then I want to eliminate that somehow,” he said, admitting that he hasn’t studied the idea very closely yet.
On legalizing cannabis, he’s more certain. “If you are asking me as a parent if I think it’s a good idea, I don’t,” he said when asked what recommendation he would give the governor. “I’m also pragmatic enough to know that now that Massachusetts has legalized that you can stand out there and talk about marijuana until you are blue in the face and the odds of it not impacting Rhode Island, either legally or otherwise, are very, very low, so let’s get practical about it.”
Neronha said he’s prepared to enforce whatever Rhode Island decides its law should be. He distanced himself from a 2011 letter he wrote to then Governor Chafee about medical marijuana. “I was following DOJ policy,” he said, noting he helped author the Cole Memo that replaced the 2011 letter. “We came up with what I think is a more rational marijuana policy. That’s now changed.”
He isn’t worried about being put in a position of suing or disagreeing with the federal government, his former employer.
“The Attorney General is a constitutional officer,” Neronha said. “You only answer to the people of Rhode Island.”