PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is pushing back on claims that he applied pressure to a quasi-public agency where a friend is entangled in a personnel investigation, even as others are questioning the legality of his actions.
As Target 12 first reported Wednesday, Mattiello ordered an unusual performance audit of the R.I. Convention Center at the same time the agency was grappling with a personnel issue involving former R.I. State Captain James Demers, who is a high-level employee there and also friends with the speaker.
The state GOP on Thursday accused Mattiello of using the audit to retaliate against Convention Center leaders on Demers’ behalf.
On Friday, Mattiello acknowledged he spoke with one unidentified individual connected to the Convention Center about Demers’ situation, but insisted the performance audit ordered on Dec. 23 had nothing to do with their personal relationship.
“I inquire throughout government all the time about issues,” Mattiello said during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers.
There’s no record of the legislative branch ordering a performance audit of a quasi-public agency in the last decade. But Mattiello said he’s heard from various people about potential problems percolating at the Convention Center, fueling his decision to direct the auditor general to initiate the audit through the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS).
“They’re running their own little fiefdom, and I don’t mean that in a negative way,” Mattiello said. “It’s a self-contained operation, but there is a ton of taxpayer money down there, so I made the determination that we’ll look at it.”
Mattiello is also facing questions about whether he and his deputy, JCLS executive director Frank Montanaro Jr., had the authority to order the audit on their own.
While JCLS is technically a five-member committee made up of House and Senate leaders, in practice it is controlled by the speaker and his inner circle.
Mattiello – as chairman – has assumed broad authority to make unilateral decisions with minimal input from other committee members. But under state law, the authorization of performance audits appears to be one of the only types of investigations by the auditor general that requires a majority vote from the JCLS.
“The auditor general shall have the power, when requested by a majority of the committee, to make post-audits and performance audits of accounts and records of any other public body,” the statute says.
Target 12 has confirmed at least three other JCLS members — Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, House Minority Leader Blake Filippi and Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere — did not vote on a decision to authorize the performance audit. (The other member is Mattiello’s No. 2, House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi.)
“There was no vote,” Filippi told Target 12. “I don’t think the JCLS has met since 2012.”
John Marion, executive director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of Rhode Island, said he knew of no public record a vote ever happened.
“The law appears to require a majority vote of the five-member JCLS to authorize this type of audit,” Marion said. “It appears that this audit wasn’t properly authorized under the law.”
Asked about the statute during Newsmakers, Mattiello maintained he didn’t violated the law, but struggled to explain his authority in ordering the audit. “The chairman makes the determination,” he said.
Mattiello cited reports he’s heard of high costs and the Convention Center struggling to lure concerts to the capital city, though earlier this week Convention Center Authority executive director Jim McCarvill told Target 12 he was feeling good about the latter.
“We’re moving in the right direction. We’ve had some good success with concerts at the Dunk,” McCarvill said. “Numbers are good and they’re getting better.”
Some of the concerts to come to Providence last year included Michael Bublé, Panic at the Disco, John Legend, John Mayer, Phish, Mumford and Sons and James Taylor with Bonnie Raitt.
Mattiello backtracked slightly when presented with the names of some of the concert acts that have recently played the Dunk, but said it was still worth a look.
“They may be bringing in some more [shows]. I don’t know. Let’s look at it, and in fact, they might be running a great operation,” he said. “I’m not suggesting they’re not.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) 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