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Smiley refunds another $3,500 of campaign donations tied to state vendors

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — R.I. Department of Administration Director Brett Smiley says he’s refunding $3,500 to four more campaign donors tied to state vendors after Target 12 identified them earlier this week.

Smiley, a Democrat who is gearing up to make a second run for Providence mayor in 2022, had made a pledge in October not to take money from state employees or state vendors because of his current role leading the influential Department of Administration under Gov. Gina Raimondo. The pledge was memorialized in an advisory opinion from the R.I. Ethics Commission that he sought before starting to raise funds for the race.

The newly refunded campaign donors include Thomas Guerra, owner of the Foundry Associates, which received $1.6 million this fiscal year as the landlord of the R.I. Department of Environmental Management; Joseph Vinagro, owner of J.R. Vinagro Corp, which does engineering and maintenance work for the state; Edward “Ned” Handy, CEO of Washington Trust, which received $51,000 from the state this fiscal year; and John Galvin, president and CEO of AAA Northeast, which was paid $11,000 by the state this fiscal year.

Guerra, Galvin and Vinagro each donated $1,000 to Smiley’s campaign — the annual maximum allowed by law — while Handy donated $500.

Smiley had initially accepted the donations and disclosed them in his campaign finance report for the final quarter of 2020, which was due to the R.I. Board of Elections on Feb. 1. He refunded one donation from a state employee prior to submitting the report, but not any of the donations from executives at state vendors.

After Target 12 examined the report and contacted him for comment on Monday, Smiley refunded two donations: one to Colin Kane, partner at the Peregrine Group, which received $279,797 for its work on alternative hospital sites during the pandemic; and another to Jonathan Savage, partner at the law firm Shechtman, Halperin and Savage LLP, which has multiple state contracts.

In total, Smiley has refunded six donations.

Smiley has defended other donations from executives at state vendors, arguing that because those individuals were not owners of the companies or directly authorized to commit to contracts, he could accept their campaign contributions without violating his pledge.

As director of administration, Smiley has significant sway over how taxpayer money is directed to various entities, especially during the coronavirus pandemic when hundreds of millions of dollars of spending has not gone through the usual procurement channels because of the state of emergency.

Smiley therefore told the Ethics Commission in October that he wanted to go “above and beyond to avoid any appearance of impropriety.”

“As someone who made a living as a campaign finance compliance consultant, and who publicly pledged not to take these contributions, it’s an inauspicious start to his campaign for mayor of Providence,” Common Cause executive director John Marion said of Smiley earlier this week.

Serving as director of administration during the pandemic “is an awfully important job,” Marion added. “And having the side hustle of running for mayor of the capital city just might not be sustainable.”

Smiley has said he is likely to leave his state job at some point this year, a decision that could be made for him by soon-to-be-governor Dan McKee, who hasn’t yet announced his long-term cabinet appointees. McKee’s spokesperson has said he expects to keep the governor’s current cabinet in place for the time being.

Other potential mayoral candidates for the 2022 race include Council President Sabina Matos, Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune and Gonzalo Cuervo, all Democrats.

Matos has the largest amount of cash in her campaign account following the last reporting period, with $223,000. Much of that total — $148,000 of it — represents outstanding personal loans Matos has made to her campaign.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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