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Nesi’s Notes: Oct. 19

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. That was quick. Less than two weeks after we revealed a grand jury was investigating Speaker Mattiello’s 2016 campaign, Attorney General Neronha announced criminal charges Friday against Jeff Britt, one of Rhode Island’s most prominent political operatives. The charge: Britt laundered money while working on the speaker’s campaign to fund a notorious pro-Mattiello mailer that his erstwhile GOP rival Shawna Lawton sent out that fall. While Britt is in serious trouble, Neronha indicated the speaker and his other aides are in the clear — no more charges are coming. That didn’t stop Steve Frias, the Republican who lost to Mattiello by only 85 votes, from saying the buck stops on the third floor. “Speaker Mattiello ran a campaign which engaged in criminal activity, and this criminal activity played a role in his win,” Frias said, adding, “Why does Mattiello surround himself with criminals?” The speaker is trying to distance himself from the charges; spokesperson Patti Doyle insisted Friday, “These proceedings do not involve the speaker.” Considering Mattiello’s name appears six times in the five-page indictment, plenty of people will question that assertion, not least Republicans seeking to make the indictment an issue in next year’s elections. (GOP Chair Sue Cienki is calling on Mattiello to resign.) Britt will be arraigned Nov. 1, and a defiant statement from his lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Bob Corrente, suggests he won’t go quietly. “We believe that evidence at trial will leave Rhode Islanders scratching their heads about who did and who did not get charged, and will show that Mr. Britt was used by the Mattiello campaign as a fall guy,” Corrente said.

2. Common Cause Rhode Island’s John Marion — who’s kept a close eye on the good, the bad and the ugly of Rhode Island electioneering for more than a decade — offered this reaction to Friday’s indictment: “On paper, Rhode Island has some very good campaign finance laws, with a strict $1,000 limit on donations and a requirement for timely online disclosure. But those laws only work if candidates and campaigns don’t cheat by circumventing them. Using straw donors allows candidates and their campaigns to hide who is truly funding election spending. Illegal coordination allows candidates and their campaigns to exceed the $1,000 limit under the cloak of an ‘independent expenditure’ that is not subject to any limits. While the amounts of money at stake in this case weren’t big, the attorney general made a big statement with these indictments because he put candidates and campaigns, big and small, on notice that he’ll put the weight of his office behind the principle that no one should flout the system we’ve put in place to limit and disclose the role money plays in our politics.”

3. Here’s a dispatch from Target 12’s Steph Machado from Friday’s news conference on the indictment: “Speaking to reporters, AG Neronha made it a point to repeatedly praise the R.I. Board of Elections for its role in investigating the Jeff Britt case, and to send a message to those who don’t cooperate with the board. It was the BOE that referred Britt to the AG’s office for potential prosecution last year, after holding months-long contempt proceedings against multiple people involved in the mailer who had failed to respond to subpoenas. ‘What concerned me … was the lack of seriousness with some people who had knowledge relevant to this investigation,’ said Neronha, who inherited the case when he succeeded Peter Kilmartin in January. He signaled that his office would start getting involved with campaign finance cases earlier in the process, rather than waiting for a referral from the board. In this case, nearly three years passed — almost reaching the statute of limitations — before charges were brought. ‘I don’t think we should be in a situation where they do something for a year and a half or two years, reach some level of success and perhaps not complete success, and then turn it over to us,’ Neronha said. ‘I think we have to be speaking on a more regular basis, in real time, and we have been doing that.'”

4. The Jeff Britt case also contains political risk for Peter Neronha, an attorney general effectively elected by acclamation last fall and one still enjoying a bit of a honeymoon. The indictment’s limited scope, which would suggest Britt was acting on his own in orchestrating the Lawton mailer, had political observers buzzing about a potential lack of curiosity on the part of prosecutors. “Wait, so where did Britt get this $1,000 in cash to give to Donor 1?” state Sen. Sam Bell tweeted, referring to one of the mailer funders mentioned in the indictment. “I find it very interesting that the indictment does not say that Britt withdrew the $1,000 in cash from his personal bank account, records a criminal investigation should be able to easily obtain,” Bell added. Were Britt’s actions authorized by anyone further up the chain on Team Mattiello? Did Neronha try to find out? And will Britt reveal more about what happened now that he’s facing 20 years in prison?

5. Meanwhile, Speaker Mattiello’s rising-star deputy chief of staff is drawing scrutiny for his investment in a hemp business.

6. Governor Raimondo won re-election with 52% of the vote last November. But there’s no sign that was the start of a broader turnaround in her public standing — the latest Morning Consult ranking puts her job approval at a lowest-ever 36%. It brought to mind this 2014 Maggie Haberman story suggesting “40 is the new 50” for politicians, which she wrote after a group of unpopular politicians got elected or re-elected that year. “It’s in part a product of voter disgust with both parties and a race-to-the-bottom political climate, in which both sides nuke their rival early and often and public opinion of Congress and institutions is extremely low,” Haberman wrote. And that was written before the Trump era, which has driven partisan polarization to new heights — a phenomenon that will usually benefit Democrats in a blue state like Rhode Island.

7. The governor is scheduled to be in Washington on Wednesday to participate in Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women Summit — an event Hillary Clinton reportedly just pulled out of to protest the attendance of former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. No word yet on whether Raimondo will follow suit.

8. Here’s a dispatch from Target 12’s Eli Sherman: “Roughly 25 cents of every state revenue dollar is spent on K-12 education in Rhode Island, which is partly why Senate President Ruggerio supports a newly launched special task force focused on how the state is allocating education aid. The task force, led by Sen. Ryan Pearson, met for the first time this week and will continue to discuss the overarching question of how much the state should spend compared to local school districts. Currently, the roughly $1 billion in state money goes toward in-classroom costs, such as teaching, materials and administration. Communities, meanwhile, are expected to cover out-of-classroom costs, including retirement benefits, food services and transportation. Some districts complain the latter represent costs that are increasingly difficult to cover, especially as other unexpected budgetary challenges have evolved since the funding formula was first implemented seven years ago. Most districts are paying at least the minimum amount necessary to cover student costs, although three districts – Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket – are underfunding students on a per pupil basis; Woonsocket has gone so far as to use state funds to pay for out-of-classroom costs. The task force is looking to address some of the underlying issues related to the funding, which – if supported by the full General Assembly – could have long-lasting repercussions on education funding across the state.”

9. Election security is a hot topic heading into the 2020 elections, so Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is hosting a Cybersecurity Summit next Friday at Salve Regina’s Pell Center in Newport. Among those slated to speak is Noah Praetz of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

10. Change is coming to U.S. District Court in Providence: William Smith announced Friday he will step down as chief judge in December, giving leadership duties to Jack McConnell. “What a great six-year run as chief,” Roger Williams Law Dean Mike Yelnosky tweeted of Smith. “The court is much better for his time as its leader.”

11. With the notable exception of Governor Baker, Massachusetts has not exactly been friendly territory for Republicans in recent years. But the GOP has a solid opportunity pick up a City Hall corner office next month in Taunton, our region’s 7th largest-city, where state Rep. Shaunna O’Connell is the favorite against City Councilor Estele Borges after lapping her in the preliminary round. (Bristol County is already home to one of the party’s most prominent elected officials, Sheriff Hodgson.) O’Connell and Borges debated Friday on a special edition of Newsmakers, clashing over marijuana shops, the city’s landfill woes and Baker’s alleged effort to clear the way for O’Connell. Considering Republicans lost one of their other local leaders two years ago when Attleboro Mayor Kevin Dumas was defeated, GOP luminaries like Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito are doing their best to boost O’Connell; Borges got the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Ed Markey on Thursday.

12. With less than a minute left at the end of the mayoral debate, Tim White posted a fun quick question to the two candidates: where in Taunton would they recommend for a first date? Each picked a local restaurant: Shauna O’Connell offered La Familia, an Italian staple in the Silver City, while Estele Borges suggested The Pearl, citing her own heritage as an immigrant from Portugal. I’m hungry already.

13. We’re now up to six candidates vying for Joe Kennedy’s U.S. House seat, and we still don’t have a single one who isn’t from either Brookline or Newton. Former Assistant Attorney General Dave Cavell jumped in this week, giving Brookline a 4-2 advantage in the two wealthy suburbs’ battle to control a seat which stretches all the way down to Fall River.

14. The beer business is booming in Rhode Island, and Westerly’s Grey Sail Brewing is at the forefront. Founded in 2011, the company has grown significantly since a 2017 expansion, now churning out roughly 9,000 barrels a year with a capacity of up to 15,000. Grey Sail already has a hit in its flagship Captain’s Daughter, and is now bringing out a session IPA called Little Sister to go along with it. Grey Sail co-founder Jennifer Brinton joins me on this week’s Executive Suite to talk about how the company got this far and what’s planned next.

15. Labor strife is rising at The Providence Journal.

16. Congrats to RDW Group’s three new partners: Christopher DiSano, Giselle Mahoney and Michael Masseur.

17. After 228 years, it’s easy to take the First Amendment for granted. Don’t. If you need a reminder of why you shouldn’t, head over to Thursday night’s Providence Public Library forum moderated by Ian Donnis, which will feature Alan Rosenberg, Lee Gaines, Justin Hansford and Lata Nott.

18. A great feature from Rhode Island Monthly’s Jamie Coelho: meet the faces in line and behind the counter at Olneyville New York System.

19. Looking for something fun – and free – to do with the kids tonight? Kim Kalunian has you covered with her annual list of the best Halloween light displays in Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts.

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a debate between the candidates for Taunton mayor. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Grey Sail Brewing co-owner Jennifer Brinton. 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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