PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello continues to defend his involvement in getting Gov. Gina Raimondo to hire a newly retired state lawmaker, even as the Rhode Island Ethics Commission investigates the propriety of the move.
The revelation last month that Raimondo had hired former Rep. Donald Lally, who retired in March just months after winning re-election, set off a firestorm of controversy. Critics charged it contradicted the spirit – and potentially the letter – of rules that bar so-called “revolving door” hirings of ex-lawmakers to state jobs.
In a televised interview with former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci that aired over the weekend, Mattiello said he recommended that Raimondo hire Lally to tackle the “very complicated political nightmare” of regulatory reform.
“I just thought he’d be great with his experience in the General Assembly,” Mattiello said of Lally. “That’s the only one that’s going to be able to do a job like that, is someone with actual experience, so I suggested that he be [hired].”
“He knows the political process and he knows how to navigate complex issues,” Mattiello said. “As far as knowing the process and dealing with a morass of a system, I think he’s someone who could help navigate it, and that’s what I suggested.”
The Ethics Commission is now investigating whether the Lally hire is allowed under a clause that lets former lawmakers avoid the revolving-door rules if they are placed in a senior policy-making position, as Raimondo argues.
“I don’t think it smells bad,” Mattiello said, noting that “the exception is there for a particular reason. You want people that know government to do those types of jobs to serve the public’s best interests.”
During the interview, Mattiello expressed support for “a version of” Raimondo’s proposal to toll large commercial trucks that cross Rhode Island to pay for bridge repairs. He also expressed little interest in alternative proposals from Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, and the right-leaning Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity.
Mattiello said the results of an economic-impact study Raimondo commissioned on the toll proposal “came back very well” from his perspective. “The good thing about the governor’s proposal is more than half the revenue comes from out-of-state truckers,” he said.
Mattiello acknowledged that the trucking industry has proposed skipping tolls and increasing truckers’ registration fees and the diesel fuel tax instead, but he ruled that out as insufficient.
“When you look at the money it generates, it’s insignificant compared with the problems we have,” he said. “They’ve even acknowledged it. Nobody’s in favor of broad-based tax increases on gas or diesel fuel.”
Separately, Mattiello weighed in again about the recent release of court documents from the civil lawsuit over the failed 38 Studios deal, as well as upcoming House Oversight Committee hearings on the matter.
The speaker said he is open to authorizing the committee to issue subpoenas if it’s deemed necessary – something he has briefly blocked – though he remains skeptical of the idea.
“I don’t think a speaker has ever in the history of the state issued subpoenas, and I think that’s just a romantic notion about the speaker issuing subpoenas – that’s a lot to do about nothing,” Mattiello said.
He went on to say, however, that the scale of the 38 Studios debacle may require subpoenas. “If there’s any additional information that’s needed, I am going to go against my general principle that a speaker should not issue subpoenas and I will issue subpoenas,” he said.
Mattiello also reiterated his oft-repeated position that the House of Representatives is not “an investigative body.”
“We’re not equipped for it. We’re not good at it,” he said. “We wouldn’t be good at it and we won’t be good at it.” The oversight hearings, he said, are “not for an investigative purpose. It’s to learn what happened, outline what happened, summarize what happened.”
“Isn’t that investigating?” Cianci shot back.
“To a certain extent, but when I say investigating I’m thinking criminal investigating, forensic investigating – we’re not that type of body,” Mattiello replied.
House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Karen MacBeth said last week her panel is likely to focus at least one of its hearings on the so-called moral-obligation bonds floated to do the 38 Studios deal. Mattiello said during the Cianci interview he doesn’t expect the General Assembly to stop authorizing those.
“It’s complicated,” he said. “I don’t fully understand the mechanisms of the moral-obligation bonds – when you should use them, how you should use them. I’m going to get into the details of that, learn more about them and put proper safeguards in place.”
Mattiello also said once again he had no advance knowledge of the 38 Studios deal even though he was then-House Speaker Gordon Fox’s No. 2 as House majority leader. He suggested Fox and then-House Finance Committee Chairman Steven Costantino withheld what they knew from him.
“The simple truth of the matter is that Gordon Fox never wanted me to be the majority leader,” Mattiello said. “He had a very close, tight relationship with Steven Costantino, the finance chairman, and they just locked me out of meetings.”
“I quite frankly had the support of the previous speaker, Bill Murphy,” Mattiello added. “I had Bill Murphy’s support. I did not have Gordon Fox’s support. I had the support of my friends and colleagues in the room, and I was able to become the majority leader.”
Speaking to business leaders Monday night at the annual meeting of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, Mattiello urged those in attendance to help him move the state past 38 Studios, suggesting the ongoing focus on the deal is holding Rhode Island back.
“Rhode Islanders have to be more positive about our own self-image,” Mattiello said in his prepared remarks. “We have to get over the 38 Studios hangover.”Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi