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Lawyer for ‘mail ballot king’ resigns from R.I. Ethics Commission

Politics - Government

Emili Vaziri at a recent Zoom meeting of the R.I. Ethics Commission. She resigned from the commission on Thursday.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A member of the R.I. Ethics Commission has resigned from the panel following two campaign meetings that took place at her law office in recent weeks.

Emili Vaziri resigned on Thursday, Ethics Commission executive director Jason Gramitt confirmed via email. State law bars commission members from participating in political campaigns.

The meetings, first reported by The Providence Journal, involved R.I. Department of Administration Director Brett Smiley and well-known mail ballot operative Ed Cotugno. They took place the past two Saturdays in Vaziri’s conference room at her law offices, Smiley told Target 12.

“The meeting was arranged by Ed to meet with community activists to talk about my campaign for mayor,” Smiley said in a phone interview Friday. “She unlocked the door.”

Vaziri — who says Cotugno is one of her legal clients — resigned from the commission shortly after a reporter began asking questions about the meetings. But she insisted Friday that she was already planning to quit the commission, which she was appointed to in 2019 as House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s designee.

“I didn’t really have the time and it just wasn’t for me,” Vaziri said. “I wanted to get involved in some other stuff. … It had nothing to do with Smiley.” She said she did not consider the meetings to be in violation of the rules barring her from participating in politics, since she was there as Cotugno’s lawyer.

Vaziri was among the commissioners who voted in favor of an ethics advisory opinion in October clearing the way for Smiley to start raising money for his mayoral campaign, provided he not accept money from state employees or vendors.

But she said she hadn’t met Smiley until January of this year, and only because she was representing Cotugno.

Cotugno, sometimes described as the “mail ballot king” of Rhode Island politics, did not return a phone call seeking comment Friday.

Smiley said it didn’t occur to him that meeting at the ethics commissioner’s law office would be an issue. He also said he has not hired Winning Ways, Cotugno’s political consulting firm.

The situation is the second hiccup of the week for Smiley’s nascent campaign, after Target 12 reported he had accepted campaign donations from multiple people tied to state vendors, despite a pledge he made — and the accompanying ethics advisory opinion — not to do so.

Smiley has so far refunded six donations totaling $5,000 from campaign donors that include a partner at a real estate group that advised the state on field hospital sites, a partner at a law firm that does state business and the landlord for the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, among others.

“We did our best,” Smiley said Friday. “I did not knowingly solicit any state vendor.”

He said refunds will show up on his next campaign finance report for the first quarter of 2021.

Smiley initially made the pledge because of his role as director of the Department of Administration, which directs millions of dollars to companies to provide services for the state ranging from construction to legal or consulting work. And during the pandemic, COVID-related spending hasn’t even gone through the typical competitive bidding process because of the state of emergency.

It’s unclear how long Smiley will remain in the job, with Lt. Gov. Dan McKee not yet announcing if he’ll name a new administration director once he replaces Gov. Gina Raimondo, who is on track to become U.S. commerce secretary.

“I recognize the unique position I have in state government,” Smiley said. “People should have confidence in their state leaders, and I want people to have confidence in what kind of City Hall I’m going to run.”

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

Eli Sherman contributed to this report.

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

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