PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is on the defensive as critics question whether one of his close aides should be in the hemp business with lobbyists while the legislature is changing regulations surrounding the nascent industry.
Mattiello’s deputy chief of staff, Grant Pilkington, is a shareholder in American Standard Hemp Inc., which he helped get off the ground along with State House lobbyist Will Farrell and former top Mattiello aide Matt Jerzyk, also a lobbyist. The company received a state hemp handler license in January, but its ability to operate has since been suspended due to a fire.
Pilkington’s role in the company has drawn scrutiny because lawmakers made significant changes to the laws around hemp when they passed the budget in June — including a controversial new requirement that all state marijuana regulations get direct approval from the General Assembly.
Unlike more senior figures, Pilkington is not required to file a financial disclosure form with the Ethics Commission that would list his ownership stake in American Standard Hemp and any other businesses in which he has an interest. Jason Gramitt, the commission’s executive director, said chiefs of staff have to file but their deputies do not.
John Marion, executive director of good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, said Wednesday it “raises serious concerns” that a senior aide to the speaker has a financial stake in hemp while lawmakers are deciding how to structure the industry.
R.I. Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki went further, tying the issue to last week’s revelations that grand juries are examining Mattiello’s 2016 re-election campaign as well as the finances of Victor Pedro, the controversial Cranston chiropractor who was steered over $1 million in taxpayer funding by Mattiello and another top aide, former Rep. Frank Montanaro Jr.
“It is concerning to learn that a top staffer of Speaker Mattiello has gone into business with State House lobbyists in an industry that is highly regulated by state lawmakers,” Cienki said in a statement.
“If Mr. Pilkington was involved in any way with legislation that affects hemp or legislation impacted by the lobbying activities of his hemp business associates, Farrell and Jerzyk, there would be a violation of the Ethics Code,” she said. Republican leaders are gathering information and may file an ethics complaint depending on what the find, she added.
House spokesperson Larry Berman distanced Pilkington from the matter in an email Thursday, saying, “Grant Pilkington has an administrative job and plays no role in the legislative process.” He added that Mattiello was not aware of Pilkington’s financial stake in American Standard Hemp.
Berman went on to describe the recent changes to hemp laws as “largely consistent” with those proposed by Gov. Gina Raimondo, insisting she “remains in control of regulatory promulgation and enforcement and we leave this to her judgment.”
Pilkington, 29, is widely seen as a rising star in Mattiello’s inner circle.
After working on the speaker’s hard-fought 2016 re-election campaign, Pilkington was hired as clerk of the House Oversight Committee at a salary of $47,000 in January 2017, according to Berman and state records. In February 2018, he was promoted to legislative manager and clerk at a salary of $61,000.
This past March, Pilkington ascended to deputy chief of staff, reporting to Mattiello’s powerful chief of staff, Leo Skenyon.
“Grant addresses staffing needs and the daily administration of the operations of the House of Representatives, as well as assisting the House chief of staff,” Berman said.
The promotion to deputy chief initially raised Pilkington’s salary to $86,616, which rose to $88,348 in June when all state employees received a cost of living increase. (Pilkington also continues to serve as the clerk of House Oversight, the investigative panel chaired by Rep. Patricia Serpa.)
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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