PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Board of Elections came down hard on House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello on Tuesday night, ordering him to repay about $72,000 in misappropriated expenses and connecting his former campaign aides with a controversial mailer in his hard-fought 2016 race.
The board’s votes came after more than a year of investigation into two complaints filed by the state GOP. One alleged Mattiello had used his political action committee (PAC) to spend thousands of dollars more than allowed on the 2016 election, and the other argued his aides had illegally coordinated an endorsement from a former rival.
In a statement that referred only to the excessive PAC spending, Mattiello said he was “pleased this issue has been resolved.”
“I regret that my campaign inadvertently made some mistakes,” he said. “I accept the warning from the Board of Elections and will fully repay from my campaign account what is owed to the PAC account. To assure those mistakes are not repeated, right after the 2016 election I hired a CPA with expertise in campaign finance to handle all of the finances.”
But R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell immediately called on the Democratic speaker to resign his Cranston seat, which he first won in 2006.
“It is clear that the 2016 election was marred by illegal conduct by Speaker Mattiello and his campaign PAC,” Bell said. “When a state representative breaks the law and deceives the voters to get re-elected, it’s time to step aside.”
Both of the Republicans’ complaints date back to the 2016 election, when Mattiello survived a strong challenge from Republican National Committeeman Steven Frias in his district, winning on mail ballots by just 85 votes.
The first of the two complaints alleged that Mattiello’s PAC, the Fund for Democratic Leadership, far exceeded the $25,000 limit on contributions to candidates and also failed to report expenses that represented in-kind contributions to campaigns, notably Mattiello’s.
Mattiello, D-Cranston, signed a consent decree that acknowledged the PAC donated $38,600 to candidates and other PACs plus spent an additional $77,350.60 on expenses for candidates. The PAC made payments on behalf of Mattiello’s campaign to organizations including GoLocalProv, Grant Pilkington, Watch Hill Strategies, Fleming & Associates, and Strategic Consulting Solutions.
The vast majority of the latter money – $73,067.80 – benefited Mattiello’s own re-election campaign, even though the limit was just $1,000, according to the consent decree. On top of that, the $38,600 in contributions significantly exceeded the $25,000 legal limit.
Mattiello agreed to use his personal campaign account to repay $72,067.80 to the PAC for its illegal funding of his re-election bid. As part of the consent decree, he also waived his defenses in R.I. Superior Court.
The board also issued a warning to Mattiello “against making or accepting any future contributions which, in the aggregate, exceed the allowable annual contribution limits.”
The second of the two complaints alleged that Mattiello’s campaign illegally coordinated with Shawna Lawton, who ran against Frias in the Republican primary only to turn around and pay for a mailer endorsing Mattiello in the subsequent general election.
While the Board of Elections’ investigation found “no direct coordination between Mattiello and Lawton,” a warning was issued to both Mattiello and Lawton to avoid questionable contributions in the future.
However, the board also scheduled “show cause” hearings against four individuals – Jeff Britt and Matt Jerzyk, two Mattiello campaign aides and prominent political operatives, as well as Lawton and Teresa Graham, who helped fund the mailer – for failing to answer subpoenas. They could be held in contempt.
As part of the investigation, the board successfully subpoenaed October 2016 emails from Paul Sasso, owner of All the Answers Inc., a political vendor. The emails showed Jerzyk communicating with Brad Dufault, another prominent political operative, that appeared to involve finalizing the Lawton mailer.
“Big universe – just exclude Ds – 3,390,” Jerzyk wrote Dufault on Oct. 17, apparently referring to the “universe” of Democratic voters who should receive the mailer from Lawton endorsing Mattiello.
“We are good to go with this. Print it. But don’t mail it yet,” Jerzyk wrote Dufault a few hours later. They continued to debate the number. Three days later, Dufault wrote Jerzyk, “Can you send me the bigger list for the Lawton piece….trying to drop it tomorrow.” Jerzyk replied to Dufault, copying Britt and attaching the list.
On Oct. 21, Dufault emailed All the Answers an attachment labeled “LawtonMailer.xls” and said, “This piece can go today if you can fit it.” Three days later, the company wrote to Dufault, “I’ve attached the approvals for the Lawton mailing.”
Mattiello’s campaign aides have previously insisted they were not involved in the mailer, though Republicans have strongly disputed their assertions.
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, questioned why Mattiello had not been punished with a fine as part of the consent decree.
“He simply has to pay the $72,000 back to the PAC from his campaign account, for which he can easily raise that in a single night from a room full of lobbyists,” Marion tweeted. “Just doesn’t seem proportional given fines we’ve seen lately for other elected officials who have essentially kept sloppy books.”
Paul Roselli, who is challenging Gov. Gina Raimondo in the Democratic primary this year, joined with the GOP chairman in urging Mattiello to resign. “The position of the current speaker has been seriously compromised by the allegations of improper use of campaign funds,” he said in a statement, adding that Mattiello had “undermined the democratic process.”
Frias, the Republican Mattiello defeated in 2016, is said to be a finalist to become Rhode Island’s new U.S. attorney. Asked last week whether he would be visiting Washington to interview for the job, Frias told Eyewitness News, “I can’t comment.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook