PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Not illegal, but improper.
That’s the message R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha emphasized Wednesday when he released a report clearing Gov. Dan McKee’s former chief of staff, Tony Silva, of breaking any bribery or extortion laws in 2021 when Silva lobbied for the development of controversial wetlands owned by his family.
The 22-page report was accompanied by transcripts, emails and R.I. State Police investigative files, showing Neronha’s team interviewed 19 people to conclude that Silva’s attempt to exert influence over the land deal failed to rise to the level of criminality, concluding: “Rhode Island’s bribery and extortion laws require more.”
But the attorney general still took aim at Silva and his actions, saying the former top aide exercised “very poor judgment in involving himself in a personal matter before a state regulatory agency while serving as a high-ranking state official, whether he had official authority over that state agency or not.”
“When high-ranking public officials like Mr. Silva, who by virtue of their public office have a voice or footprint that everyday Rhode Islanders do not, seek to capitalize on their insider access, Rhode Islanders lose,” Neronha wrote in a summary of his report. “They lose because the regulatory playing field is no longer even. They lose because the professionalism of a government agency is threatened. They lose because public confidence in government is undermined.”
Silva, who wasn’t interviewed as part of the investigation, said he appreciated the attorney general “has finally reported that I did not violate the law.” But he pushed back on the idea that he did anything improper, arguing he was “treated unfairly and with political motivation.”
“I disagree with the attorney general on his suggestion and opinion that I had inappropriate conversations with any public official,” he said. “The source of the conversations referred to by the attorney general is a politically motivated source. The mere suggestion by anyone that I had these conversations to gain an advantage is totally untrue and politically motivated.”
Neronha’s findings come nearly one year after McKee asked his office and the R.I. State Police to investigate the controversy, which became a distraction for the McKee administration during his first six months in office. Silva, who had served as McKee’s chief of staff since his days as lieutenant governor in 2015, stepped down last August shortly after the investigation began.
McKee spokesperson Andrea Palagi lauded the findings, saying the outcome should give Rhode Islanders “full confidence in how both the governor and the Department of Environmental Management conduct state business.”
“Today, the attorney general confirmed what Governor McKee has said from the beginning – the governor had no involvement in this matter and no laws were broken,” Palagi said in a statement. “Additionally, the report confirms that the Department of Environmental Management followed their normal procedures and did their job properly.”
The controversy surrounded wetlands property owned by the Silva family at 45 Canning St. in Cumberland, a town where Silva formerly served as police chief and McKee as mayor.
The Silva family had been trying to get regulatory permission from the Department of Environmental Management to build a home on the land since 2017. But the idea was met with fierce pushback from neighbors, who feared development of a property that’s 93% wetlands would exacerbate flooding issues in the area.
Silva repeatedly said he gave up all financial interest in the property – now owned by his son – but the investigation found he “frequently contacted” both DEM and the Cumberland officials, “in an attempt to advance the DEM regulatory approval process.”
In an interview with State Police, DEM Director Terry Gray said Silva had contacted him “a lot” beginning as early as 2018, and Gray said he wanted to avoid those conversations. Investigators said Silva would reach out by phone, along with his personal and official government email accounts.
“I was getting sick of getting the calls from Tony, all right,” Gray told investigators. “That’s the God’s honest truth. I wanted out of it. I mean it’s one thing if somebody calls you and asks the status, you give them the status and then they move on. It’s another thing if they call you again and again, want to know the status, want to get advice. Eventually, it’s, like, look, this isn’t my job.”
Eric Beck, administrator of freshwater and wetlands protection, also expressed frustration with Silva’s outreach, saying he would go “out of his way” to give Beck his backstory.
“He’s like, ‘Well, you know, I was the chief of police in Cumberland for 20 years,'” Beck said about one of Silva’s phone calls.
Silva also lobbied town officials directly over multiple months, calling on the town to reverse its opposition to the family’s permit application with the DEM.
In a text message dated March 31, 2021 – sent about one month after McKee took over the state’s top job, elevating Silva to be chief of staff to the governor – Silva reached out and asked for a meeting with Cumberland Mayor Jeff Mutter. The mayor later said the Canning Street property and the town’s objection were the subject of that meeting.
“If not entirely about Canning Street and the town’s objection, it was the point of the conversation and dominated the conversation,” Mutter told Target 12 last August.
In an interview later with State Police, Mutter told investigators he was uncomfortable with the meeting because he didn’t think it was appropriate.
“I’m on the public dime, he’s on the public dime, we’re not talking about anything here but a personal interest,” Mutter said, according to the report. Investigators noted that Mutter was “concerned about the impact of saying no to the governor’s chief of staff.”
State Police also said they interviewed McKee and former DEM Director Janet Coit as part of the investigation, and “both denied any knowledge of or involvement in Mr. Silva’s efforts to obtain a wetlands alteration permit for the 45 Canning Street Property.”
“Governor McKee further stated that at no time was he asked by Mr. Silva to intercede on his behalf to facilitate the approval of the wetland’s permitting process,” state police wrote. “The governor was very clear that he did not contact anyone at the Department of Environmental Management or in the Town of Cumberland, to use his political influence to secure an approval on the wetland’s alteration permit.”
To determine whether the Silva violated the law, Neronha examined whether he could prove beyond a reasonable doubt whether Silva bribed anyone by offering something like money in exchange for official action. The attorney general also looked at whether Silva extorted anyone by using his official power against someone to take action for his personal benefit.
Under both legal lenses, Neronha concluded Silva’s actions failed to rise to the level of criminality, saying investigators found no evidence to suggest Silva offered anything of value to secure DEM approval for the project. And because extortion requires a threat and “an apparent ability to deliver on it,” Neronha said state and local officials never felt threatened by Silva.
Neronha also examined whether Silva violated the state’s Code of Ethics, which focuses on whether high-ranking state officials and lawmakers have any conflicts of interest. He ultimately agreed with the R.I. Ethics Commission, which had earlier cleared Silva of any violations, saying the former top aide didn’t have authority over the agency at the time in his previous role at the lieutenant governor’s office.
“The absence of authority dooms a criminal charge here,” Neronha wrote.
Silva offered a different narrative, saying his “public service record of 40-plus years and my integrity and character speaks for themselves.”
“From the very beginning I have been transparent, truthful, and professional on this issue,” he said. “The R.I. Ethics Commission voted unanimously that my behavior was ethical and appropriate.”
In the conclusion of his report, Neronha said the findings all paint a picture of what “many Rhode Islanders believe happens routinely: a government insider who, because of his position as the lieutenant governor’s chief of staff, was able to have the ear of top DEM officials and put his Application on their radar screen.”
The attorney general said the entire issue showed Silva exercised “very poor judgement” and he should have distanced himself from the matter.
“We come back to where we began,” Neronha wrote. “No laws were broken here, based on the facts as we found them and the applicable Rhode Island law. But this debacle wasted plenty of government time and contributed to a reduction of the public’s faith in government, and that is an unhappy consequence for Rhode Island.”
The controversy eventually led the Silva family to announce they would give up on trying to develop the land and donate the property to the town instead. The Cumberland Town Assessor’s office shows the town became owner in October 2021.
Neronha’s report quickly led to criticism of McKee from his Democratic opponents, who are seeking to unseat him this fall. Former Secretary of State Matt Brown said the Silva report was just one example of how his administration has worked to benefit its friends and allies. He also pointed to an ongoing FBI probe into a state contract awarded to the consulting firm ILO Group by the administration last year.
“Rhode Islanders are sick of seeing public officials use their positions of power for their personal gain,” Brown said in a statement. “We need leaders who will work for all Rhode Islanders instead of the wealthy and well-connected. We need a whole new government.”
Former CVS executive Helena Foulkes, another Democrat, also took aim at the governor’s track record, pointing to a Morning Consult poll released Tuesday that showed he had the lowest job approval rating of any incumbent governor in the country.
“It’s no surprise that Dan McKee is the least popular governor in America — his tenure has brought Rhode Island back to the old days of backroom deals and insider access,” Foulkes said in a statement. “Rhode Islanders deserve more from their governor than FBI and attorney general investigations. They deserve a governor who will get big things done for our state, not their friends.”
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s campaign manager Dana Walton also offered criticism, saying Rhode Island needs to “stop making headlines for all the wrong reasons.”
“The attorney general’s report clearly found inappropriate behavior by the governor’s chief of staff – it found that he did ‘throw his weight around’ for personal benefit,” Walton said. “He may not have broken a law but he undermined the people’s trust in their government. We need to change this culture of ‘do you know who I am’ in Rhode Island government to one where government works for every Rhode Islander.”
McKee’s campaign fired back at Gorbea and Foulkes, arguing their campaigns are just disappointed once again because “they’ve swung for the fences and have struck out.”
“While they will still try to make false statements and smear the governor, he will continue to lead like he has from day one,” McKee campaign spokesperson Alana O’Hare said in a statement.
“Governor McKee took over during the worst pandemic in a century with Rhode Island’s economy faltering and turned it into the best economic recovery in the region,” she added. “Dan McKee knows public service is about building people up, and all Nellie and Helena do is falsely attack and tear Rhode Island down.”
Tolly Taylor and Jacqueline Gomersall contributed to this report.