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    Saturday, April 20, 2024

    How decision to honor a Trump ally tore apart R.I. Hall of Fame

    Former national security adviser Michael Flynn speaks during a "rosary rally" on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023, in Norwood, Ohio. For nearly 60 years, the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame has inducted notables into its ranks. In December, it emerged that Flynn - a Rhode Island native, retired lieutenant general and former national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and was later pardoned by Donald Trump - would be inducted into the Hall of Fame at its annual banquet this spring. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

    EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. - For nearly 60 years, the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame has inducted notables into its ranks, providing this tiny state with a boost of pride.

    Its honorees have ranged from Roger Williams, Rhode Island’s founder, to Martha McSally, the first American woman to fly a fighter jet in combat, all recognized for having “brought credit” to the state where they lived or were born.

    Then came the matter of Michael Flynn.

    In December, it emerged that Flynn - a Rhode Island native, retired lieutenant general and former national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and was later pardoned by Donald Trump - would be inducted into the Hall of Fame at its annual banquet this spring.

    At least nine members of the organization’s board resigned in response. Some of this year’s other inductees said they would decline the honor. The husband of one of the board members who had resigned reported the group’s former longtime president to the Internal Revenue Service.

    Of all the institutions torn apart by the rise of Trump’s brand of politics and ensuing backlash, this may be the smallest and most unusual.

    In interviews, half a dozen former board members expressed disbelief and sadness at how the gale-force winds of partisan politics had wrecked the organization’s reputation. The columnist for the Boston Globe who first reported Flynn’s impending induction acerbically called the body a “hall of shame.” A previous honoree chastised the board for elevating a “radioactive” candidate like Flynn.

    A key figure in the dispute is Patrick Conley, an 85-year-old lawyer with a pugilistic temperament who serves as Rhode Island’s official “historian laureate.” Conley was president of the Hall of Fame for 20 years until 2023 and still holds sway over the organization.

    Conley defended Flynn’s induction to the Hall of Fame in an opinion piece in the Providence Journal. The decision to honor Flynn had been the subject of “vile coordinated protest,” he wrote in late December. The board would not withdraw Flynn’s induction but would defer it to “a more peaceful and rational time.”

    He gave no indication of when that time would be.

    Conley didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. Lawrence Reid, the Hall of Fame’s president, declined to speak with The Washington Post. Flynn did not respond to a request for comment on his induction.

    John Parrillo teaches history at a local university and served on the Hall of Fame’s board for seven years before stepping down in late December, saying he disagreed with Flynn’s “far-right, militaristic” vision for America.

    “It tears my heart out that I had to leave it,” Parrillo said. “We’ve never talked politics.”

    Inductees are celebrated at an annual ceremony opened by bagpipes and studded with local dignitaries. Each receives a statuette, a replica of the “Independent Man” atop Rhode Island’s State House. Parrillo already had his nominee for 2025 picked out: novelist Cormac McCarthy, who was born in Providence and died last year.

    The nation’s tiniest state - just 48 miles in one direction and 37 miles in the other - longs for recognition. “Some say we’re a small state with a big inferiority complex,” said one former board member, who like several others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. “This idea that there are Hall of Famers, great people, honorable people, is something Rhode Island craves in its psyche.”

    It’s a small state in other ways, too. Parrillo lives in Middletown, Flynn’s hometown, and knew Flynn’s mother (“a wonderful person”). But when he learned that Flynn had received a majority of the board’s votes, he was stunned. “I said, ‘Holy cripe,’” Parrillo recalled. “They have every right to do whatever they want, but we shouldn’t put controversial people in the Hall of Fame.”

    The controversy around Flynn goes beyond pleading guilty to a felony, a plea he later sought to withdraw before receiving a presidential pardon. He is also a high-profile proponent of conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 election, which he baselessly claims was stolen.

    In December 2020, he was part of a group that urged Trump to direct the military to seize voting machines, witnesses told a congressional committee. When Flynn was questioned by legislators investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, he repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. He has toured the country telling audiences that America is in the middle of a “spiritual war” and called for the nation to embrace “one religion” during an appearance at an evangelical megachurch.

    None of that information was provided to the Hall of Fame’s board members when they gathered on a November evening at a red-brick office park in East Providence. In the packet of background material they received on the 18 candidates under consideration, there were three pages marked with Flynn’s logo: a biography highlighting his military service and role as national security adviser, together with a long list of commendations, according to a copy reviewed by The Post.

    The next morning, John Tarantino, a prominent Rhode Island lawyer who had recently joined the board, sent an email to his fellow directors. “I have struggled since I learned … that Gen. Michael Flynn is a nominee for admission to the 2024 class,” he wrote in a message obtained by The Post. He noted that the trustees of the University of Rhode Island had voted unanimously to strip Flynn of his honorary doctorate, citing his felony plea and controversial comments.

    Honoring Flynn would “jeopardize the success of our signature event” and force the board to answer “unnecessary and difficult questions” from the media for which “it would be hard to provide credible and reasonable responses,” he noted in the email. Tarantino urged his fellow board members not to vote for Flynn when they mailed in their ballots.

    The following month, the board met via Zoom, former members said. That’s when it was announced that Flynn’s nomination had been approved, after receiving a majority of the 19 votes.

    Ann Marie Maguire, who was the group’s treasurer, said her reaction to the news was one of total shock. “We just kind of sat there and said, ‘What?’” she recalled.

    The resignation letters began arriving the next morning. Tarantino and Beatrice Lanzi, a former state legislator, wrote that the decision to honor Flynn was “disturbing” and “astounding.” (Tarantino declined to comment, and Lanzi did not respond.) Other resignations, Maguire’s included, swiftly followed.

    One former board member dryly likened the decision to honor Flynn to a local Humane Society voting to support people harming animals. “It contradicts the mission,” the board member said.

    But Conley - who describes himself as the organization’s “volunteer general counsel” - disagreed. In a Dec. 15 email sent to board members, Conley said he knew a college classmate of Flynn’s, who recalled him as patriotic and upright. “Has this leopard changed his spots?” Conley asked.

    Flynn was the victim of a “weaponized FBI,” Conley continued, echoing a common Trump complaint. As a result, “I sought to vindicate Flynn in his home state.”

    Maguire, the former treasurer, said that many of the Hall of Fame’s board members, including herself, were once students of Conley’s at Providence College, where he taught for many years. Conley brought Rhode Island history to vivid, pulsating life, she said. She described his class as the best course she ever took.

    But when she joined the board, Maguire, 72, said she was startled by her former professor’s domineering ways, which included berating directors, particularly women.

    Former board member Roberta Feather - a longtime professor of nursing at the University of Rhode Island - said that Conley called her a sexist slur in November during a disagreement over the process for putting forward a different nominee. Reached later by the Providence Journal, Conley acknowledged making the remark.

    Feather and her husband, James Hackett, an attorney, said they found Flynn’s induction and Conley’s behavior unacceptable. In January, Hackett reported Conley to the IRS for potentially violating rules against “self-dealing” in a 2020 transaction in which Conley transferred his waterfront home, known as Gale Winds, to a foundation Conley runs. Conley said last month in an email to a reporter that he may have unknowingly run afoul of IRS rules.

    On a recent afternoon at Gale Winds, a dark blue sedan with the license plate “JDPHD” was parked in the driveway (Conley has both a law degree and a doctorate). Just beyond the house were the waters of eastern Narragansett Bay, slate gray under a cloudy January sky. The woman who answered the door said Conley was unavailable.

    Meanwhile, at least three of this year’s other inductees - the head of a breast cancer foundation, a former member of Congress and a nationally recognized oncology researcher - said they would decline the honor in the wake of the Flynn controversy.

    The Hall of Fame’s annual banquet is still scheduled to take place in April. Flynn isn’t mentioned anywhere on the invitation. The current iteration of the organization’s website lists only nine board members, and the roles of vice president and treasurer are vacant.

    Maguire, who resigned as treasurer, said the board needs to be overhauled for the organization to continue. While she describes herself as a former Trump fan, she has no admiration for Flynn, noting that he admitted to breaking the law.

    “There are people from Rhode Island who have done so much,” she said. “Those are the people we should put on a pedestal, not Michael Flynn.”

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