The aftermath of Rhode Island’s biggest economic development scandal isn’t over yet. In 2010 the state’s privatized economic development agency loaned 38 Studios—a video game company founded by former major league pitcher Curt Schilling—some $75 million in subsidies which the state borrowed to provide. The firm soon failed, apparently leaving taxpayers with an obligation that has risen to $89 million (with interest), including a $12.3 million payment due next year.
Those payments are now in question. Rhode Island’s House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has scheduled meetings with Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s to discuss the consequences of failing to pay. While these bonds are not backed by the full faith and credit of Rhode Island, a previous consultant to the state made dire warnings about failure to pay, claiming that the move would degrade Rhode Island to junk bond status.
Mattiello became Speaker two months ago after the FBI raided the office of his predecessor Gordon Fox, who had played a significant role in approving the loan to 38 Studios. According to recent news reports, Fox’s lawyer moved to quash a subpoena for documents related to 38 Studios, citing his client’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. No charges have been filed pursuant to the raid.
Fox also had connections to a Providence lawyer named Michael Corso, who was involved with the 38 Studios deal. Leaked documents show that Corso was paid $300,000 by 38 Studios to interact with state agencies and officials. Additional revelations show Corso was paid $485 an hour by 38 Studios to evaluate potential incentives for the company. Corso failed to register as a lobbyist on behalf of 38 Studios. This revelation launched an additional investigation this May by State Police into potential lobbying violations.
Corso is also a tax-credit broker. His company, Preservation Credit Fund, had a contract with 38 Studios to allow it to sell tax credits secured by the company. According to Corso’s LinkedIn page, “Preservation Credit Fund works closely with developers and advisors to maximize tax credit benefits, advise on tax credit issues and provide syndication services.” Corso has been dubbed the state’s leading film tax credit broker and has even claimed to be the primary draftsperson of Rhode Island’s Historic Preservation Tax Credit.
In another strange development, the state recently hired First Southwest, a financial adviser it is simultaneously suing for “fraud, negligence, and legal malpractice” in connection with the 38 Studios loan. According to the state’s lawsuit and reported by the Providence Journal, First Southwest was paid $120,000 to pitch the 38 Studios’ loan subsidy to the privatized economic development agency’s board of directors and bond rating agencies. The lawsuit accuses First Southwest of withholding vital information about the deal, primarily that the company was under-capitalized, thus making the loan appear less risky than it was. The company denies these allegations. New emails made public this week reveal internal discussions amongst 38 Studios executives about downplaying the under-capitalization issue.
It is a little-known fact that states and cities sometimes cover debt obligations for failed or troubled economic development transactions (including tax increment financing districts), even though they are not technically obligated to do so. But the fear of paying usurious interest rates on future deals causes them to reluctantly pay. Good Jobs First has observed that in the Great Recession, some development agencies apparently became very lax in their deal-vetting standards, as politicians were desperate to appear aggressive on jobs. For performance-based subsidies, at least taxpayers won’t suffer from such deals; but when public debt is floated on insufficient collateral, as in the Studio 38 deal, taxpayers stand to suffer no matter what Rhode Island officials decide to do.
It’s a Teachable Moment about celebrity entrepreneurs, tax-credit consultants, and anxious politicians.