top of page

Sept. 9 deadline looms for ruling on controversial Block Island marina deal

The mediated settlement of a controversial marina expansion on Block Island was a common-sense solution to nearly two decades of litigation. Or, it was a secret backroom deal that violated state law and excluded opponents who had fought the proposal every step of the way.

Those two narratives played out in Kent County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey A. Lanphear’s fourth-floor courtroom over 2½ weeks beginning in late July. Lanphear is under a looming deadline from the Rhode Island Supreme Court to determine whether the settlement is valid.


The expansion, first proposed in 2003, would have taken four acres of the Great Salt Pond, extending the pier 240 more feet into the water and added 3,000 feet of pier to the existing 6,000 feet. It also would have added 140 vessels to the 240 already allowed. Opponents were concerned, among other things, about the effect it would have on the town’s mooring field, and they mobilized from the beginning.


That led to dozens of hearings, then years of litigation that wound up in the Rhode Island Supreme Court in 2020.

The Hummel Report, in an investigation published Feb. 7 in The Providence Sunday Journal, detailed the events leading to what a lawyer for marina opponents called a “lawless attempt to fix litigation.” He pointed the finger at the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council and retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams, who helped broker the agreement.


The agreement between Champlin’s and the CRMC called for a scaled-back version of the original plan, but with no opportunity for public comment before it was implemented.


Last month, five attorneys converged in front of Lanphear, who is charged with deciding whether the mediated settlement is legally valid. A defiant Williams was in the rare position of looking up at the bench from the witness stand. He had several pointed exchanges with Special Assistant Attorney General Tricia Jedele, who at times cut Williams off when the former jurist’s answers began to wander.


The retired judge-turned-mediator was adamant in his testimony that the so-called intervenors had no legal right to be at the negotiating table — although, he insisted, he had bent over backward to include them.

Williams was the first of 13 witnesses, following a flurry of pretrial motions.


“We’re going to continue to plow forward,” Lanphear said July 27, the first day of what he described as a hearing, not a trial — after rejecting a request to postpone the proceeding to allow depositions before the testimony got underway.


The judge noted that the Supreme Court on June 11 directed the Superior Court to make “findings of fact and conclusions of law” about the agreement and report back in 90 days. “It’s Day 46,” he noted before Williams walked up to the witness stand.


Lanphear repeatedly had to put out legal brush fires during the seven days of testimony, as the attorney for Champlin’s Marina, Robert D. Goldberg, and R. Daniel Prentiss, representing a coalition of opponents to the expansion, traded barbs and got into extended arguments over what the judge should admit into evidence.


Goldberg zeroed in on whether the opponents — intervenors, in legal terminology — had been given sufficient notice to participate in the mediation that led to a settlement, calling on Williams and CRMC attorney Anthony DeSisto to recount how the December 2019 talks came together.


Prentiss said the extent of the notification ultimately doesn’t matter, because the CRMC does not have the authority to settle a case that is on appeal before the state Supreme Court, an issue Lanphear will have to decide. The agency’s jurisdiction, he added, ended when Champlin’s appealed the case to Superior Court in 2013.


Questions raised about judge's ties to marina lawyer

Lanphear’s assignment to hear the latest part of the case has raised concern among the intervenors, since Superior Court Judge Kristen Rodgers was the judge who issued the decision now on appeal to the Supreme Court and knows the intricacies of the case. Lanphear, who repeatedly talked about the pressure of the Supreme Court deadline, issued on June 11, was on vacation until June 28.


Lanphear was legal counsel to the Senate minority leader when Goldberg held that post from 1987 to 1993. Lanphear served a total of 22 years as counsel to the Senate Republicans, and Goldberg was a senator for a decade during Lanphear’s tenure. Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri chose Lanphear to become a Superior Court judge in 2003. 


“It seems untoward. Why wouldn’t this go to [Judge Rodgers]?” said Henry duPont, a director of the board of The Committee for The Great Salt Pond. “None of us has an explanation for what’s going on.”


The Hummel Report, through a court spokesman, asked Superior Court Presiding Justice Alice B. Gibney whether she had any concerns about an appearance of impropriety, given Lanphear’s longtime connection to Goldberg at the General Assembly.


Spokesman Craig Berke, in a statement, wrote: “Presiding Justice Gibney was not aware of any connection Judge Lanphear may have had 40 years ago with Robert Goldberg. She would rely on Judge Lanphear’s judgment in taking the case … under the Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires judges to examine their ability to be impartial in a case. Connections do not always require disqualification, under the Code.

“Rhode Island’s judges take this obligation seriously. And Judge Lanphear, I might add, is the chair of the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline. He is as aware of judicial scrutiny as anybody,” Berke concluded.


Venom in the courtroom

After nearly 18 years of battling each other, the friction in the courtroom between Goldberg and Prentiss was palpable and spilled over into their post-trial briefs. Goldberg labeled Prentiss “arrogant” and said the intervenors “engaged in what can only be characterized as an unseemly, deceitful conspiracy to attack the propriety of the mediation and all who participated.”


Goldberg also took several shots at the attorney general’s office, which joined the opponents as an intervenor, writing: “Added to the mix was the righteous intervention of a gullible Attorney General, whose lack of understanding of the state’s basic jurisprudence is unfortunate and embarrassing.”


Prentiss countered that former Judge Williams, one of Goldberg’s witnesses, “embellished” testimony that Prentiss described as “newly invented recollections” of what happened. He added that DeSisto “apparently could not resist the temptation to try to make the story even better.”


DeSisto enlisted veteran Providence attorney Mark Mandell to represent him while he was on the witness stand. Mandell repeatedly objected to Prentiss’ line of questions.


How the Champlin's saga unfolded over 18 years

When Champlin’s Realty Associates first proposed expanding into the 600-acre harbor, no one could have predicted that it would still be contested 18 years later.

After holding  23 hearings over two years, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council rejected the plan in 2006. That decision was repeatedly affirmed over more than a decade of litigation.


Judge Rodgers' 56-page decision — seven years in the making — upheld the rejection. Champlin’s appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. While the high court can order mediation, in this case it did not, and participation was strictly voluntary.


The CRMC decided on a compromise with Champlin’s in December after discussions between DeSisto, Goldberg and Williams, whom they had brought in as a mediator. DeSisto and Goldberg — who are both lobbyists — said they began talking about a settlement when they ran into each other at the State House in early 2019.


Much of Goldberg’s focus at this month’s hearing has been whether the opponents were given proper notice of those discussions. The intervenors include The Committee for The Great Salt Pond, The Block Island Land Trust, the Block Island Conservancy and the Town of New Shoreham.


In late November, the full council voted to proceed with mediation, but DeSisto, in a subsequent email to New Shoreham Town Solicitor Kathy Merolla, told her that the CRMC would only go forward with the mediation “on the condition that the Town of New Shoreham also participate.” (When Prentiss showed Williams the email last month, he testified it was the first time he had seen it.)


Despite DeSisto’s emailed assurance to Merolla, the mediation proceeded anyway, leading to a settlement that included a scaled-down version of the original proposal. The full CRMC approved the agreement via Zoom between Christmas and New Year’s, with no notice to any of the opponents that the vote was taking place.


Williams, in an interview with The Hummel Report in January, said he had tried to reach out to Merolla but never got a call back. Merolla told The Hummel Report she had emailed Williams after the Town Council meeting to let him know the opponents would not go forward with the mediation, believing that would be the end of it.


The testimony of Williams and DeSisto differed significantly from what each told The Hummel Report earlier this year. Williams testified that Merolla said in a phone call that “under no circumstances ... would the intervenors participate in mediation.”


Prentiss noted in his post-trial memorandum: “What Judge Williams described as a passive response by Ms. Merolla was now a militant defiance. This is a very substantive embellishment on Williams’s own less-than-credible story. It is, as the saying goes, a bit too good to be true.”


DeSisto revealed on the stand that he'd contracted COVID-19 around the time of his communication with Merolla. DeSisto testified that he called Williams to let him know he was ill and that he had “overstated” what the CRMC had to say: in fact, the agency would go forward with mediation even if the opponents didn’t participate.


DeSisto, in his January interview with The Hummel Report, did not disclose that he had asked Williams to reach out. On the stand he testified that Williams told DeSisto he “would take care of it.” 

Williams never mentioned that in the January interview either.


 Lanphear must issue his findings to the Supreme Court by Sept. 9.

The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to Reach Jim at

bottom of page