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Smiley resigns from state job ahead of expected run for Providence mayor

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — R.I. Department of Administration director Brett Smiley is resigning ahead of an expected run for Providence mayor, as his campaign has come under fire in recent weeks over controversial donations.

The Providence Democrat sent out a letter Wednesday announcing his resignation and expressing gratitude to the state, his employees and Gov. Gina Raimondo, who appointed him roughly a year ago to serve as director of administration.

“As Governor Raimondo prepares to serve the country as President Biden’s Commerce Secretary, I have decided to leave state service when she is confirmed so that I can focus on the next chapter of my public service career,” Smiley wrote in his letter of resignation.

While he hasn’t officially announced his candidacy, Smiley has indicated he’s mounting a campaign to run for Providence mayor in 2022. The city’s current Mayor Jorge Elorza is slated to leave because of term limits.

Smiley’s nascent campaign has already sparked some controversy, however, as he’s been criticized in recent weeks for raising funds from executives at companies that are also doing business with both his agency and others in state government.

Smiley in October pledged to the R.I. Ethics Commission he wouldn’t raise money from state contractors. But he later returned thousands of dollars in campaign donations after Target 12 identified several discrepancies between his pledge and the names disclosed in his fourth-quarter campaign finance report.

The Rhode Island Republican Party on Monday slammed Smiley for accepting the donations and called for his resignation, describing the fundraising as “slimy behavior.”

“He has shown he can not be trusted to ethically perform his job as Director of Administration while running for mayor,” Rhode Island GOP chairwoman Sue Cienki said in a statement earlier this week.

In his resignation letter, Smiley touted what he described as accomplishments during his time in office, such as keeping employees safe and transitioning thousands to remote work during the coronavirus pandemic. He also pointed to his role managing a budget during a time of crisis, which included “responsible budget sacrifices without hurting personnel,” such as deploying certain public programs that helped avoid widespread layoffs.

He likewise expressed pride for his role in moving forward certain initiatives, including updating the state’s “antiquated paper-based system.” The director said he helped move the state’s technology into the cloud and focused on saving money on state leases, as the public-sector workforce has transitioned into a “21st Century workplace.”

Smiley called it a privilege to serve under Raimondo, who is leaving midterm to become the U.S. commerce secretary, and he praised her incoming replacement, Lt. Gov. Dan McKee. Smiley is the first first of Raimondo’s cabinet members to announce his resignation since she decided to join the Biden administration.

“I am excited for Lt. Governor Dan McKee to make his own mark on Rhode Island and assembly his team that will lead our state,” Smiley wrote in his letter. “I will continue to work closely with him and his team over the next couple of weeks to ensure a smooth transition.”

In addition to the controversy surrounding Smiley’s campaign donations, the state’s Ethics Commission member Emili Vaziri resigned from the panel after hosting two campaign meetings in recent weeks between Smiley and the well-known ballot operative Ed Cotugno at her office. State law prohibits commission members from participating in political campaigns.

When asked about the issue Tuesday, Raimondo — who donated $1,000 to Smiley’s campaign in the final quarter of 2020 — said specific questions should be directed to the director, but she defended his character and described him as “an excellent public servant.”

“Brett is a fantastic head of [administration],” Raimondo said. “He needs to decide how long he’s going to stay, but I think Rhode Island is lucky to have him where he is.”

Department of Administration spokesperson Robert Dulski said Smiley is expected to serve until Raimondo is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, which will likely happen over the next couple weeks. When asked about a replacement, Dulski said that will be up to governor-in-waiting McKee.

“We defer to the lieutenant governor’s office for future plans for Department of Administration leadership,” Dulski said.

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

Steph Machado and Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.

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

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