Nesi’s Notes: Oct. 12

Ted Nesi
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Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com and follow @tednesi on Twitter.

1. Safe to say Speaker Mattiello has had better weeks. On Tuesday, we revealed a state grand jury is investigating the activities of Mattiello’s 2016 re-election campaign; 72 hours later, we reported a federal grand jury is investigating how Cranston chiropractor Victor Pedro used all the taxpayer money steered to him by Mattiello and top aide Frank Montanaro Jr. Considering the way prosecutors have rocked Rhode Island politics in the past, the revelations have hit the State House like bolts of lightning. After all, Mattiello himself became speaker when a law enforcement raid ended the career of his predecessor Gordon Fox. What to make of the two probes? For the case involving Mattiello’s 2016 campaign, it helps to recall its origins: the Board of Elections referred former Mattiello operative Jeff Britt to the AG’s office for potential criminal charges following an investigation into the notorous pro-Mattiello mailer sent by the speaker’s erstwhile GOP rival Shawna Lawton. Britt is clearly taking it seriously, retaining a high-powered lawyer in Bob Corrente, Neronha’s predecessor as U.S. attorney. Will the AG’s office and the grand jury interpret their mission narrowly, limiting their examination to Britt’s conduct? Or will they expand the inquiry’s scope to determine how many inside the Mattiello organization had knowledge of the effort to circumvent campaign finance laws? Even less is known about the chiropractor case, but we have confirmed the U.S. attorney is reviewing the $1.4 million in Medicaid money Pedro has received since 2015. Keep in mind, investigations can go in unexpected directions – prosecutors uncovered the bribe that helped put Fox away while looking into a different issue with his campaign finances. And that’s why these cases will be the talk of Smith Hill until they come to a conclusion.

2. There is a basic question about the IGT Lottery contract that might help lawmakers and the public decide whether to support its extension: what is the company’s profit margin on the deal? Twin River reports that figure to the SEC: last year its Rhode Island casinos posted an operating profit of $106 million on $303 million in net revenue, for a 35% profit margin. Getting the same numbers for IGT would be instructive in order to determine just how lucrative the current Rhode Island contract is for the company, and whether there is room for lawmakers to push for further concessions. But that’s a number IGT won’t reveal. “It’s a good contract. We enjoy it,” IGT Global Solutions Chairman Bob Vincent said on this week’s Newsmakers. “It’s not our largest contract, by far. We don’t talk about profitability of individual contracts, but it’s a good one.” Of course, no contract in a state like Rhode Island is going to be large when compared with states the size of, say, Florida or New York — but that says nothing about profit margins.

3. Governor Raimondo’s Twitter non-endorsement of Cory Booker has refocused attention on who the second-term Democrat will wind up supporting in her party’s presidential race. Raimondo is unlikely to make an endorsement before her stint as DGA chair ends late this year, and many assume she will wind up backing Joe Biden considering his past visits to Rhode Island in support of her. So it’s notable that Raimondo had warm words for Elizabeth Warren on last Friday’s taping of the “Axe Files” podcast with David Axelrod. “I think she’s running an extraordinary campaign,” Raimondo said. “I mean, she is the frontrunner because she is earning it. She is out there. She is hustling. She is organizing. She is a believer — she is an authentic believer, a brilliant woman, with great policy ideas.” But Raimondo admitted she is concerned that Warren’s embrace of Medicare for All, for example, will be “a tough message in a general election” when it comes to Americans who already have health insurance.

4. Keep an eye on this: state Sen. Ryan Pearson, an influential Cumberland Democrat, will hold the first hearing on Wednesday of his new Special Legislative Task Force to Study Rhode Island’s Education Funding Formula. Pearson has long been a critic of the decade-old formula, particularly how it allocates money for charter schools, and Senate President Ruggerio signaled his interest in his prepared remarks at Monday’s RIPEC dinner. “With the education aid formula fully phased in, the state now provides roughly $1 billion in aid for public elementary and secondary education,” he said. “That’s $1 billion out of $4 billion in general revenue expenditures. Put another way, 25 cents of every state general revenue dollar goes towards elementary and secondary education. Certainly we are providing resources for education. Now, with the education funding formula fully funded, it is an appropriate time to re-assess whether these resources are being allocated in the most appropriate way.” Pearson tells me the task force will issue a report no later than January.

5. Here’s a dispatch from Target 12’s Eli Sherman: “Following a report in August that showed nearly 500 Providence teachers were ‘chronically absent,’ meaning they missed at least 18 of 180 school days last year, the union pushed back on the numbers, saying teachers missed days for a variety of legitimate reasons — including investigations of alleged abuse by the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families. Providence teachers are automatically put on administrative leave when allegations of abuse are reported to DCYF, and subsequent investigations can take a long time before educators are cleared – assuming there’s no wrongdoing – and allowed back in the classroom. So my colleague Steph Machado and I decided to investigate the claim. We discovered this week that while 19 school employees, mostly teachers, did collectively miss hundreds of days of school because of DCYF investigations, the time out represented only about half of the time missed by chronically absent teachers on administrative leave, and only 5% of the 18,984 days missed by all chronically absent teachers. Teacher absenteeism, along with student absenteeism, is part of a laundry list of problems identified at the embattled school district, which the R.I. Department of Education is in the process of taking over. Stay tuned for more on that next week.”

6. Will the Fane tower be able to hit this new do-or-die Dec. 1 deadline?

7. It’s easy for Rhode Island observers to take for granted the political potency of Jack Reed, considering he’s approaching 30 years in Congress and his re-election next year is so taken for granted that Republican leaders say they may not nominate an opponent. Still, this stat tweeted by election data expert Drew Savicki is striking: “Jack Reed has won every town in Rhode Island in three straight elections! There’s no other Senator with his level of crossover appeal.” Savicki notes the Republican elections website RRH Elections ranks Reed’s as the second-safest Senate seat in the country; only South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds’ tops him.

8. Here’s an item from WPRI’s Providence City Hall ace Steph Machado: “Thursday’s Democratic primary to replace disgraced former Councilman Luis Aponte ended up being decided by very few people. Only 846 votes were cast for the four candidates competing in the heated race, representing less than 12% of the 7,195 registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters who were eligible to vote in the Ward 10 primary. Real estate investor Pedro Espinal won with 304 votes — 35% — over his three rivals, and will go on to face independent Jeffrey Lemire in the general election. The four-way split meant Espinal won despite receiving his lowest vote total in his three council bids (he got 594 votes in the 2018 primary and 474 in 2006, both against Aponte). Mail ballots played a huge part in the result: Orlando Correa had the most votes on the regular voting machines, but Espinal soared past him with 117 mail ballots, and Correa ended up in third. Espinal told supporters Thursday night he wants to move on from the campaign’s negative headlines, including the news that he owes $93,000 in back taxes to the city and hasn’t made a property tax payment since 2017. But the day after his win, there was another wrinkle: the Providence Board of Canvassers voted to send a complaint about how Espinal handled a voter’s mail ballot over to the Providence Police for investigation.”

9. Voters in Tiverton ousted two councilors in a first-ever recall this week.

10. Here’s how a one-day Rhode Island political career led to a $44,000 fine.

11. The Hells Angels are synonymous with biker gangs in Rhode Island, but since 2014 they’ve had a local rival: the Outlaws Motorcycle Club, which set up shop in Woonsocket. Tim White looks at why their escalating feud is worrying law enforcement.

12. The Globe’s Ed Fitzpatrick on what’s being asked during grand jury testimony about the Wyatt protest.

13. A hearing next week will decide if the Projo has to pay Sunday overtime. And don’t miss Ken Doctor on what to expect from the paper’s new owner.

14. Regular WPRO listeners may have noticed a subtle shift in branding of late: the station now emphasizes its FM signal, 99.7, rather than its historic 630 spot on the AM dial. Cumulus Media Providence GM Holly Paras tells me it’s a sign of the times. “WPRO’s staying power has been its ability to evolve with the changing times and technology,” Paras said in an email. “While you are correct that 630 has been well-branded with decades of consistent marketing throughout Southern New England, it is also true that listeners’ habits have changed. There is a widespread, younger demographic who would prefer to listen on the FM band. There are many times during the day that there is more listening on 99.7 than there is on 630. This is particularly true in drive time and during special programming like New England Patriots Football and PC Basketball games.” WPRO has been on the AM airwaves under those call letters for nearly 90 years. (And did you know WPRI 12 got its start as WPRO-TV when our original owner, Cherry & Webb, launched the station as WPRO’s television counterpart back in 1955? We didn’t become “WPRI” until 1967.)

15. The Gano Street exit will soon be back open — temporarily.

16. Here’s how to set your Google data to self-destruct.

17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – IGT Global Solutions Chairman Robert Vincent; Twin River Rhode Island President Marc Crisafulli. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – ChemArt CEO Richard Beaupre; former Virginia & Spanish Peanut Co. co-owners Peter and Robert Kaloostian. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (also Sunday at 6:30 a.m. on Fox or 7:30 a.m. on The CW). Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both shows on iTunes — get the Newsmakers podcast here and the Executive Suite podcast here — and radio listeners can catch them back-to-back Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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