PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Ethics Commission took action Tuesday on separate complaints that involve two former chiefs of staff to Rhode Island governors, Brett Smiley and Tony Silva.
Smiley, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Gina Raimondo and is now a candidate for Providence mayor, agreed to pay a penalty of $4,500 to settle a complaint over his acceptance of campaign contributions from state vendors while he was leading the R.I. Department of Administration.
A 28-page investigation by the commission listed six campaign donors whose contributions to Smiley violated the ethics code: Colin Kane of the Peregrine Group LLC, Edward Handy of Washington Trust Co., Ellis Waldman of Walco Electric Co., Jonathan Savage of Schechtman Halperin Savage LLP, Anthony Thomas of Foundry Associates, and John Galvin of AAA Northeast.
“The $4,500 fine imposed by the commission is a significant one and demonstrates that they viewed this as more than just an oversight,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, who was in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting.
Smiley said he “never knowingly solicited contributions from vendors,” returned the money as soon as he was alerted to the issue, and “never discussed state contracts with any donor.”
“It is important that candidates for office, and all elected officials, hold themselves to the highest possible standards,” he said. “This is exactly why I sought an advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission before raising one dime for my campaign.”
Smiley added, “I appreciate the thorough process conducted by the Ethics Commission and their help in putting this matter to rest so I can focus on our campaign to improve the quality-of-life for residents across our city.”
But one of Smiley’s mayoral opponents, Gonzalo Cuervo, called on Smiley “to return all campaign contributions that he received from all vendors and their associates doing business with the state of Rhode Island, and lobbyists who lobbied the Department of Administration, while he served as the state’s director of administration – beyond those listed in the complaint.”
“The people of Providence cannot afford a return to the days of pay-to-play at City Hall,” Cuervo said. “This is unacceptable and it makes Mr. Smiley unfit to lead the City of Providence.”
But Smiley’s campaign said he has no other contributions from state contractors that date to the candidate’s time leading the Department of Administration.
In Silva’s case, the commission voted unanimously to open an investigation into a complaint over his failure to list a financial interest in a property on Canning Street in his mandatory financial disclosures.
Silva’s years-long push to develop that property, which is almost entirely wetlands, triggered his resignation last month as McKee’s top aide after questions were raised about his efforts to influence the process at the town level.
Silva has said he did not think he needed to disclose his financial interest in the Canning Street property because he only had an option to buy it, contingent on development approval. He was already fined $1,000 by the state this month for failing to register a construction business he began operating in 2018.
Marion said the Ethics Commission has a “low bar” for taking the initial action it did on the Silva complaint. “That means there will be an investigation into the complaint after which the commission will have to decide whether there is enough evidence to proceed further,” he said.
Both ethics complaints were filed by the R.I. Republican Party. The GOP’s chair, Sue Cienki, expressed satisfaction that the commission took action in both cases.
“Slimy Smiley used his power over state vendors to fund his political ambitions. Sneaky Silva hid his financial interest in wetlands from the public while behind the scenes he pushed government officials to support his moneymaking scheme,” Cienki said in a statement. “Both of these former chiefs of staff to a governor exemplify Rhode Island’s unethical insider political culture.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Steph Machado contributed to this report.