PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As he begins an investigation into a controversial $5.2 million state consulting contract, Attorney General Peter Neronha said Tuesday he thinks it’s important for his office to get involved when an issue shakes public confidence.
Neronha’s office and the R.I. State Police confirmed late Friday they are investigating how the lucrative state contract was awarded to ILO Group LLC, a consulting firm that incorporated two days after Gov. Dan McKee took office in March.
The firm was created by former employees of Chiefs for Change, a national nonprofit led by McKee ally and campaign donor Mike Magee. Lawmakers have raised concerns that ILO might have had an inside track to secure the contract because of political and personal connections, and some urged Neronha to open an investigation during legislative oversight hearings last week.
The issue was first brought to light as part of a Target 12 investigation last month.
“Whenever there is some concern on the part of the public that something in government wasn’t done quite the right way, it’s incumbent on us in the job that I have — with the state police — to take a look at it,” Neronha said during a live interview on 12 News at 4.
He added, “There are some instances where public confidence would be shaken if we didn’t.”
A McKee spokesperson on Friday said the attorney general’s office had requested documents related to ILO and a second consulting firm, WestEd, from the R.I. Department of Administration, which oversees all contracting for the state.
Asked Monday whether investigators had also requested information from the governor’s office or any other arm of state government, McKee spokesperson Alana O’Hare declined to comment.
“We are not going to be commenting further while this review is underway,” she said.
McKee’s office also did not respond to questions about whether the attorney general’s office had sought to interview anyone from the governor’s office.
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Neronha on Tuesday declined to provide any insight into who could be interviewed as part of the ILO probe. But he made clear the investigation wasn’t requested by the governor and that its scope would not be limited for political reasons.
“There’s never anybody off limits,” he said. “We have access to anybody whose information we think is needed.”
Neronha also noted that while his office is tasked with investigating criminal activity, the decision to investigate the ILO contract shouldn’t be taken as an indication that a crime was committed.
“You see something that you want to take a look at and then we take a step back, we understand what the law is — that’s the legal framework — we gather the facts that we need from whatever the source and then we determine whether or not we need to take additional steps,” he said.
While ILO spokesperson Frank McMahon did not respond Tuesday to questions about whether ILO had been contacted by law enforcement, he said, “ILO Group believes strongly in fairness and transparency, and we support every effort to ensure Rhode Island’s procurement procedures were properly followed.”
“We will have no further comment until the review process has concluded,” McMahon added.
ILO incorporated in March, and by June it had secured the $5.2 million contract despite bidding millions more than WestEd, which had more than two decades of experience in Rhode Island.
WestEd was also awarded a contract for about $940,000 to help colleges reopen schools safely amid the ongoing pandemic. McKee’s chief of staff, Tony Afonso, is directly managing both contracts and helped make the final determination on how much money each firm would receive, according to testimony provided to lawmakers this week.
WestEd has not been contacted by state law enforcement regarding the investigation, spokesperson Pamela Polk told Target 12 on Monday night.
House and Senate oversight committees scrutinized how the deal came about in separate hearings last week, looking closely at a Zoom meeting that McKee held on March 5 — a day after ILO incorporated and three days after he became governor.
McKee held the meeting with Magee and Department of Administration Director Jim Thorsen, along with the state’s head of purchasing — Nancy McIntyre — and McKee’s then-chief of staff, Tony Silva. (Afonso replaced Silva in August.)
The idea to issue a request for proposals (RFP) related to the work that ultimately went to ILO was spawned during the meeting, according to testimony. ILO’s co-founder and managing partner, Julia Rafal-Baer, was also invited to the meeting, but state officials say she didn’t attend. At the time, she worked for Magee as chief operating officer at Chiefs for Change.
Magee talked about ILO during the meeting, McKee administration officials testified last week.
Emails obtained by Target 12 through a public records request also showed Afonso and the governor’s then-special adviser on education, Christine Lopes Metcalfe, were intimately involved in drafting the RFP. They also kept in close contact with the review team throughout the process, even though they weren’t technically part of the group.
One of the review team members, Thomas McCarthy, who is also the executive director of the R.I. Department of Health’s COVID-19 response team, indicated he had a discussion with Afonso after the review panel saw how much more ILO’s bid was compared with WestEd and other firms. Afonso at the time was serving as the governor’s senior deputy chief of staff.
“I spoke with Tony Afonso and he asked that we work with you to develop a rough sizing of what we think the engagement would require to deliver on the Governor’s intent,” McCarthy wrote in an email on April 29.
McCarthy also asked Lopes Metcalfe to work with another review team member to “help flesh out” what would be expected of the bidders.
“We want to make sure we’re fully aligned with the Governor’s expectations,” added McCarthy.
Neronha’s decision to open an investigation into ILO marks the third time in the seven months since McKee’s inauguration that law enforcement has looked into people in his administration.
The attorney general is already investigating McKee’s former chief of staff, Silva, who resigned in August amid a controversy over a wetlands development. That investigation was requested by the governor.
McKee also asked state police in June to investigate whether R.I. Division of Motor Vehicles administrator Walter “Bud” Craddock had any knowledge or involvement regarding an alleged sex-for-pay operation busted at one of his rental properties.
Neronha declined to comment on the status of those investigations Tuesday, but said the investigative process was “basically the same” as the one for the ILO probe.
“There are reports or allegations or claims about conduct,” he said. “Those are two instances where we’re evaluating that conduct and when we get to the end of what we’re doing, we’ll share the results with the public.”
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, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram