THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Muddy Matiello

A look at the RI Speaker of the House’s Abuses of Power

by Osayuwamen "Uwa" Ede-Osifo

published March 7, 2020


Speaker of the House Nicolas Mattiello, arguably one of the most powerful figures in Rhode Island politics, has been shrouded in a thick veil of controversy and political turmoil that seems almost too sitcom-esque to be real.

Last fall, Jeffrey Britt, a political consultant to Mattiello’s re-election campaign, was indicted on a felony count of money laundering and a misdemeanor count of a prohibited campaign contribution. The indictment alleges that three years ago, Britt approached defeated Republican primary candidate Shawna Lawton with a suspicious request: to donate to Mattiello and to mail an endorsement of Mattiello for representative instead of her own party’s nominee. Britt provided $1,000 via a third party to Lawton and in the subsequent election, Mattiello defeated Republican opponent Steven Frias by just 65 votes.

The information surfaced when the Republican Party filed a complaint that claimed Lawton did not follow legal procedures to disclose the contribution and behaved in a manner that suggested she was trying to bypass transaction reporting requirements—in other words, that Britt laundered the money to her. If convicted on these counts, Britt may face up to 20 years in jail.

For decades, Britt has worked in Rhode Island politics on various campaigns including former R.I. treasurer Frank T. Caprio’s 2010 gubernatorial run and most recently Governor Gina Raimondo’s re-election campaign. Britt operated Strategic Consulting Solutions, a political consulting firm, which was contracted by the Fund for Democratic Leadership to advise Mattiello, according to the indictment.

Shortly after Britt was indicted, Mattiello described Britt to WPRO as able to “manipulate the media.” Matiello hired him for this very reason: “We kind of took him away from the competition… I didn’t want [Britt] on the other side shooting me.” Britt certainly came in shooting, blowing open the case of corruption in Mattiello’s cabinet. The investigation of Britt has encouraged the College Hill Independent to take a closer look at the previously isolated incidences of crime surrounding Mattiello’s associates.

Mattiello has attempted to distance himself from Britt, painting his former employee as a fanatical campaign worker who, according to Mattiello, wanted to “ingratiate” himself with the politician.

Britt’s lawyer, former US Attorney for Rhode Island Robert Corrente, disagreed in his official statement, saying that Britt has been positioned as the “fall guy” for Mattiello’s election tampering.

Yet Jeffrey Britt’s ongoing investigation is neither the first controversy nor allegation of corruption to try and pin Mattiello.

 

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In January, Matiello requested a performance audit into the finances of the Convention Center Authority shortly after his close friend, James Demers, was placed on administrative leave at the agency. A top female executive reported that Demers sexually harassed and abused her for years.

Mattiello, however, noted that Demers had contacted him over concerns about the Convention’s financial records previous to the sexual harassment allegations.

However, the coincidental timing coupled with the fact that Mattiello’s audit request was not voted on by the bipartisan five-member Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS) first, as the law mandates, insinuates that the audit request may have been an intimidation or retribution tactic. The JCLS presides over the financial and administrative functions of the RI General Assembly.

Mattiello canceled the audit after the House GOP criticized his actions. A Rhode Island grand jury has subpoenaed Convention Center board members. However, according to WPRI, there has not been any confirmation of an active investigation by the R.I. Attorney General. The grand jury is being used to determine if criminal charges should be brought against Mattiello. House Republican Leader Blake Filippi is also separately filing a lawsuit accusing Mattiello of unilaterally bypassing procedural norms with his audit request.

As the investigation unfurls, more and more evidence points at misconduct on Mattiello’s behalf. The R.I. State Police, for example, received an anonymous tip that unnamed JCLS documents had been improperly removed from the JCLS office.

Although a spokesperson for the speaker said the documents were relocated due to black mold, outside testing revealed that no black mold has ever been present in the JCLS’s offices. Even more suspicious, the executive president of Single Source, the cleaning company hired to remove the mold, Mike Pomeranz has vacationed with Mattiello’s close ally and JCLS Executive Director Frank Montanaro and has donated to Mattiello’s campaigns before.

House cabinet members are frustrated with how Mattielo’s administration has transformed into a political spectacle.

“Those of us who are standing up to the speaker are conservative, moderate, and progressive Democrats. We don’t agree on everything. We do, however, believe in a clean, honest, and open government,” John Lombardi (D-Providence) said in a press release.

When the ego of Mattiello’s administration rears its ugly head, Mattielo abandons the very purpose for which he was elected. Mattiello’s constituents voted for him with hopes that he would bring to fruition their policy preferences: economic development, business revitalization, and lower taxes and ideological beliefs. Corruption was not on the agenda.

Clean, honest, and open. Mattielo’s administration could not be farther from these standards.

 

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The frequency with which Mattiello’s associates have been indicted—as well as their proximity to him—points to a larger trend of corruption.

With a predecessor such as former Speaker of House Gordon D. Fox, the bar for misconduct has been set low. Fox received $52,500 in bribes and diverted $108,000 in campaign funds to his personal account over the course of his tenure. In 2015, Fox was convicted of public corruption charges after pleading guilty to taking bribes, wire fraud, and falsifying tax return documents. When asked by the press, Mattiello maintained he had no knowledge of Fox’s activities.

Immediately following Gordon Fox’s money laundering scandal, the Rhode Island Board of Elections adjusted its campaign finance laws. Among the changes, the Board passed a bill requiring candidates to have separate bank accounts for campaign money and personal funds. However, the Board of Elections’ inability to enforce these regulations, which may be in part due to the challenges of tracking down individual candidates.

So, two years later white-collar crime still persisted on even larger scales.

In 2017, Raymond E. Gallison Jr., former Chairman of the House Finance Committee appointed by Mattiello pled guilty to nine federal charges including mail fraud, identity theft, and wire fraud. Gallison stole more than $600,000 from a deceased person’s estate and committed tax fraud to divert money away from a non-profit organization assisting underrepresented and/or disadvantaged students.

Again, Matiello alleged to have no knowledge of Gallison’s activities.

All of the crooks and cronies have largely been held accountable for their actions in court, except Mattiello. Why has Mattiello emerged relatively unscathed from the investigations and king-pin like takedown of his associates? Why is he not behind bars?

For one, many representatives who are “reformers” or dissident Democratic colleagues are reluctant to explicitly oppose the Speaker as Mattiello plays a large role in assigning committee positions and thus influencing what bills advance on the Senate floor. Any outright critiques could potentially hinder the efficacy of representatives’ agendas.

After Gallison-Jr’s conviction, then-State Attorney General Peter Kilmartin issued a statement emphasizing that corruption had no place in the state: “Rhode Islanders have seen too much and are rightly tired of it.”

When Mattiello shortchanges the system, he is disrupting the workings of a functioning democracy and sending the message that political and economic capital can supersede the demands of ordinary citizens.

“Power corrupts. With so much power individuals tend to grow in arrogance,” House Republican Leader Filippi said in reference to Mattiello’s investigations. As more and more investigations into their associates and their affairs, Mattiello has been virtually invincible—immune to the very laws that he swore to uphold.

A survey of his administration reveals severely crippled electoral oversight mechanisms as well as puppet auditing systems that are heavily influenced by politics. Mattiello has provided numerous occasions for suspicions and critique of him to be warranted. His claims of ignorance and naivety now ring false.

There has been bipartisan support for Mattiello to resign. If Mattiello were to be removed from office, however, who’s to determine if his absence would actually target the structural determinants of corruption in Rhode Island?

 

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“Money has been freely used for some purpose connected with the elevation of partisan candidates' and … to exert their personal influence over the action of their fellow men,” read an archived article from The New York Times lamenting bribery and corruption in the 1860 Providence Republican gubernatorial nominations.

Eerily the scene described in the article mirrors that of Britt’s alleged misconduct: using money to influence the proceedings of an election. The contemporary parallels can be attributed to certain Rhode Island characteristics that have remained constant over its history.

Rhode Island’s size has fostered a governance system with loopholes for decades-long corruption. Patrick T. Conley, a history professor at Providence College, argued in a 1986 article for the LA Times that Rhode Island's size cultivated a “politics of intimacy,” where political leaders are uniquely familiar and cozy with other political and business leaders, as with their own citizens. While Rhode Island’s nature as a “city-state” has provided certain degrees of increased political efficacy and engagement on behalf of the citizens, it has also blurred the lines of legality.

This would explain shady incidents concerning conflicts of interest such as the JCLS-black mold debacle when Frank Montanaro resorted to calling his buddies at Single Source. From this perspective, Mattiello may not view himself as engaging in shady business as much as he is helping friends. But, these blurred lines do not excuse his abuse of government power.

One merit to viewing Mattiello’s corruption in the history of Rhode Island illuminates that there is a collective action problem. Corruption is normalized and embedded between the interactions of Mattiello, his associates, and individuals that can advance their interests. In most cases, corruption is mutually beneficial for most parties—Mattiello, his friends, and his constituents of Cranston, essentially the only agents able to fight back against his corruption—but not for the greater good.

Muckraker Lincoln Steffens observed the same in his 1905 investigations of corruption in numerous counties of Rhode Island: “[The state] will have reform when we all have reform; when we are all willing to make sacrifices for the sake of our country and our self-respect,” Steffens wrote for McClure's Magazine. Steffens suggests that the onus for improving corruption rests on the citizens. But he’s only partially right.

Many Rhode Islanders are already aware of the administration’s shady dealings and have spoken out against patronage, nepotism, and money laundering. However, Mattiello is more responsive to certain citizens of Rhode Island, particularly those in his district of Cranston. It is these citizens who then have the greatest ability to hold Mattiello accountable.

For the remaining time Mattiello has in power, Cranston residents have a large role to play through the form of pressure-group politics. Town meetings, forums, letters to the editors—and many more forms of civic engagement can go a long way. Residents must call for Mattiello to explicitly address and disavow himself from all the past controversies surrounding him and to develop bills in correspondence with the governance reforms critics have called for.

Cranston residents have already put into motion steps that could signal the end of Mattiello’s term. Republican activist and wife of Cranston mayor Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung filed this past week to challenge Mattiello for the Cranston Representative district.

“Even people who had Mattiello yard signs and considered him a friend say ‘enough is enough,’” Fenton-Fung said in an interview with The Tara Granahan Show on WPRO.

 

OSAYUWAMEN “UWA” EDE-OSIFO B’22 does not want a hit put out on her.