PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Attorney General Peter Neronha announced Friday that veteran Rhode Island campaign operative Jeff Britt has been indicted over his actions while working on House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s 2016 re-election campaign.
Britt faces one felony charge of money laundering as well as a misdemeanor charge of making a prohibited campaign contribution, Neronha said at a 12:45 p.m. news conference with R.I. State Police Col. James Manni. Word had been spreading in political circles earlier Friday that an announcement was coming.
Britt’s lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente, said Britt was “disappointed in today’s indictment,” but said he “is anxious to clear his name at a public trial.” He argued the evidence “will show that Mr. Britt was used by the Mattiello campaign as a fall guy.”
Neronha, a first-term Democrat, said he expects no further charges. “The person who knew of the misconduct, based on the evidence we have, is Mr. Britt,” he said.
However, the attorney general expressed alarm about how many of those tied to the Mattiello campaign tried to stonewall the R.I. Board of Elections when it was probing what had occurred.
“The Board of Elections is charged with ensuring the integrity of our elections, and it’s important that people cooperate with them,” Neronha said.
“Simply ignoring the board’s attempts to gain information without legally justifiable grounds will be a strong indication to this office and to me that the full investigative weight of this office should be utilized,” he added.
Steve Erickson, the board’s vice chair, praised Neronha’s statement.
“This strong statement by the AG backing up the [Board of Elections on] our enforcement actions should send a message to everyone engaged in elections that the board has a mission and will carry it out,” Erickson wrote on Twitter. “And that there are consequences to non-compliance.”
The investigation dates back three years, to the fall of 2016, when Mattiello was in the political fight of his life against Republican Steven Frias. Mattiello defeated Frias by just 85 votes after his campaign coordinated a supportive mailer from Frias’s one-time Republican rival Shawna Lawton, who had lost to him in that year’s GOP primary.
The indictment says Britt met with Lawton that October to discuss the possibility she could endorse Mattiello in a mailer seemingly sent by her own campaign. Leaked messages indicate Britt suggested the speaker would support her anti-vaccination priorities in exchange for her backing.
After offering to assist Lawton in finding the money to pay for the mailer, Britt allegedly gave $1,000 in cash to an individual named in the indictment as “Donor 1” to cover a check that individual would write to Lawton. (The two donors who paid for the mailer were later identified as Teresa Graham, partner of Britt associate Ed Cotugno, and Victor Pichette, who worked on Mattiello’s campaign.)
After depositing the money, Lawton cut a $2,150 check from her campaign account and gave it to Britt to cover the cost of the mailer, the indictment says. Those moves are the basis of the money laundering charge, while the prohibited campaign contribution charge stemmed from Britt failing to report he was the actual source of the money.
The Board of Elections launched an investigation into the mailer after Republicans filed a complaint, revealing the mailer was reported as an independent expenditure rather than an in-kind contribution, which under state law cannot be coordinated with a campaign.
The board let Mattiello and Lawton off with a warning after finding they did not directly coordinate with each other, but text messages confirmed Britt and another Mattiello aide, Matt Jerzyk, had helped execute the mailer.
The board referred Britt to the attorney general for possible charges in September 2018. Target 12 first reported last week that Neronha’s office was bringing witnesses before a grand jury to testify about the mailer.
“What happened today is that the AG essentially agreed with our analysis of where the criminal activity occurred, and what the appropriate response was,” Erickson tweeted. “He validated our decision making, and made it clear that we will be backed up in the future.”
Britt is scheduled to be arraigned in Kent County Superior Court on Nov. 1. Corrente, his attorney, downplayed the mailer funding as “a pretty underwhelming offense” that involved relatively little money. He accused prosecutors of “overcharging this petty episode as money laundering, when — at most — it might be a misdemeanor under Rhode Island law.”
Corrente also questioned why Neronha had “singled out” Britt but no others involved in the Mattiello campaign.
“We believe that the evidence at trial will leave Rhode Islanders scratching their heads about who did and who did not get charged, and will show that Mr. Britt was used by the Mattiello campaign as a fall guy,” he said. “We are confident that the jury will see this setup for what it is, once they hear the testimony from everyone involved.”
Frias, who lost to Mattiello in 2016 and again in 2018, unloaded on the speaker in a statement.
“Speaker Mattiello ran a campaign which engaged in criminal activity, and this criminal activity played a role in his win,” Frias said. “He also misled the voters when he said his campaign had no involvement with the illegal mailer.”
R.I. Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki added: “As this is sadly just the latest scandal to swirl around the speaker and more sure to come, I think it’s incumbent on him to resign his position as speaker of the House and state representative.”
Mattiello’s campaign spokesperson, Patti Doyle, tried to distance the speaker from the criminal case.
“These proceedings do not involve the speaker,” Doyle said in a brief statement. “The Board of Elections resolved this issue for the campaign approximately one year ago.” She has previously declined to answer questions about why Mattiello said during a WPRI 12 debate at the time that none of his aides were involved in the Lawton mailer.
“If it was me, I would be so ashamed,” Frias said. “In fact, I find it embarrassing to be even represented by somebody like him. Why does Mattiello surround himself with criminals?”
State Rep. Moira Walsh, a Providence Democrat whom Mattiello tried to oust last year, tweeted that the speaker should resign.
The Rhode Island Republican Party’s chair last week slammed Mattiello, saying she hoped the grand jury investigation “ends the cover-up.”
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