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Prosecutors preview Mattiello aide Cotugno’s testimony at looming trial of former campaign aide Britt

Politics - Government

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — One of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s campaign advisers will testify that he talked with another key Mattiello aide about cutting a check that eventually led to criminal charges against their former colleague Jeff Britt, prosecutors said Thursday.

The new court filing in the case of Britt — a Mattiello adviser in 2016 who goes on trial next week for allegedly violating campaign finance laws during that contest — shows Ed Cotugno, a famed mail-ballot operative who is still working for Mattiello today, is cooperating with prosecutors.

Britt’s trial, already a constant topic of discussion among State House insiders, is set to begin on Monday.

Separately on Thursday, Britt’s attorney Robert Corrente filed a motion to dismiss the felony money laundering charge his client faces, arguing prosecutors are overreaching by trying to turn a misdemeanor offense into a felony.

The case revolves around a mailer that was purportedly sent by Shawna Lawton, an unsuccessful candidate in the 2016 Republican primary for Mattiello’s seat, endorsing the speaker over GOP rival Steve Frias that fall. It later emerged that Britt had orchestrated the mailer in a bid to help Mattiello, including involving Cotugno in the financing of it, in violation of campaign finance rules.

The attorney general’s office said in the new filing that Cotugno and his lawyer, Emili Viziri, met Wednesday with prosecutors to prepare for his trial testimony. Cotugno continues to work for Mattiello; campaign finance records show the speaker has paid $69,800 to Cotugno’s company, Winning Ways, since November 2017.

According to prosecutors, Cotugno said he had a conversation outside Mattiello’s campaign headquarters in October 2016 with Britt and another Mattiello adviser, the prominent Democratic operative Matt Jerzyk, where Britt “indicated that they were ‘trying to make nice’ with Shawna Lawton.”

“Britt asked if Cotugno could make a donation to Shawna Lawton’s campaign,” prosecutors wrote. “Cotugno responded that he would and asked when they wanted the check. Jerzyk and Britt stepped aside for a moment. They returned to Cotugno, and Britt stated that they couldn’t have Ed write the check because he was too close to the campaign.” Instead Cotugno agreed to have his wife, Teresa Graham, write the check.

Jerzyk — who was working as the speaker’s deputy legal counsel at the time of the Lawton affair — did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new filings.

Asked how much Mattiello knew about the alleged conversations surrounding the mailer, his campaign spokesperson Patti Doyle said, “The speaker purposefully does not discuss this case with anyone. Matt does not work on the campaign. Ed is a consultant.”

Doyle added that Jerzyk is not volunteering for Mattiello’s campaign this year, either.

Britt’s defense attorney has subpoenaed Jerzyk to testify in the trial next Thursday, along with Mattiello’s chief of staff, Leo Skenyon, and Mattiello himself the same day. It remains to be seen if any of them will actually be called to the witness stand, however.

Meanwhile, at the heart of Britt’s motion to dismiss — a common tactic on the eve of a trial — is the argument that the facts of the case do not warrant a felony money laundering charge, but rather a misdemeanor campaign finance violation.

The difference in the two charges is profound: a guilty conviction on the misdemeanor charge would mean – at most – a fine of $1,000. A conviction on the felony money laundering charge comes with up to 20 years in prison and the possibility of a $500,000 fine.

“This court should not allow this outrageous exercise in prosecutorial overreach,” Corrente, Britt’s attorney, wrote in the filing. He argued the money laundering charge requires that the funds that are being hidden must be used to pay for criminal behavior that is a felony.

“That is bad news for the state [prosecutors], since the underlying activity here is a misdemeanor,” Corrente writes.

The motion also argues the other way to be convicted of a money laundering charge is if the defendant was avoiding a transaction reporting requirement under state law.

“Mr. Britt is neither a candidate nor a campaign treasurer nor a political action committee,” wrote Corrente. “He is not subject to a reporting requirement under Rhode Island campaign finance laws.”

Corrente added that the donation to Lawton’s campaign was ultimately disclosed in her campaign finance reports. The R.I. Board of Elections issued a warning to both Mattiello and Lawton in April 2018 over the mailer, but did not fine either of them.

Mattiello is up for re-election next month in Cranston’s House District 15, which he has represented since 2006. He is facing Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung. The pair are scheduled to meet for a televised debate on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers later this month.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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