WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – Witnesses called to testify before a Superior Court judge Monday offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how the sausage is made in cutthroat political campaigns in Rhode Island.
The first three witnesses to testify in the high-profile trial of political operative Jeffrey Britt recounted their version of events from 2016, when Britt was working for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and helped coordinate a pro-Mattiello mailer with his onetime GOP rival Shawna Lawton.
Fast forward four years and Britt is now on trial because of that mailer, facing one felony charge of money laundering and one misdemeanor charge of violating campaign finance laws. He’s pleaded not guilty to both charges.
Day one of testimony was delivered before Superior Court Judge Daniel Procaccini and a courtroom sparsely filled with attorneys and journalists. Despite the high level of interest surrounding the case, the coronavirus pandemic forced courthouse staff to limit in-person attendance.
But while the proceedings looked slightly different than Rhode Island trials of the past, with almost everyone in the room wearing masks and staying at least six feet apart, the captivating back-and-forth between the judge, attorneys and witnesses remained largely intact.
“I don’t know when I learned about the mailer, but obviously [expletive] hit the fan at some point in time,” said Edward Cotugno, Rhode Island’s so-called “mail ballot king” and one of the state’s witnesses, whose wife helped pay for the 2016 mailer.
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing, it’s nothing,” Cotugno said, recounting what people kept telling him about the fallout from the mailer. “It turned out to be something.”
Cotugno is still working for Mattiello today as a consultant on his campaign to win re-election next month against Republican nominee Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung.
Setting the stage
Britt waived his right to a jury trial, meaning Procaccini will be solely responsible for deciding his guilt or innocence.
Without a jury, both the prosecution and defense decided to skip opening statements and move directly into testimony.
Lawton, the Republican candidate whose campaign was ultimately listed as sending out the mailer, was called to the stand first.
Her testimony covered the weeks leading up to the general election in 2016, when she was approached by Britt – then working on Mattiello’s campaign – after losing to Steve Frias in the Republican primary for Mattiello’s seat. (Frias himself made a brief appearance in court to listen to her testimony in the morning.)
Lawton — who struck a deal with investigators to avoid prosecution by testifying — said she and Britt discussed the possibility of creating a mailer in support of Mattiello, a Democrat, which she agreed to do in part because she felt the GOP and Frias had “ganged up” on her and treated her unfairly during the primary. She said she was motivated to run due to her opposition to the state’s HPV vaccine mandate.
Lawton also said she was drawn to support Mattiello after learning about his more conservative positions at the time, including his opposition to allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and support for elimination of the master lever, which allowed voters to support political parties rather than individual candidates.
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Lawton, a Cranston resident, said Britt gave her a mock-up version of the mailer that would go out to voters, and even offered his assistance when it came to financing the project – as Lawton’s campaign account had run out of money.
“He said that he might be able to help,” Lawton said.
Later, she testified Britt provided her with two checks – both worth $1,000 – made out to her campaign from Victor Pichette and Teresa Graham. In exchange, Lawton said she cut a check for $2,125 for the mailer, which she gave to Britt.
Lawton’s initial testimony offered some insight into the state’s case against Britt. The prosecution has indicated in court filings that it plans to show how Britt actually paid Pichette $1,000 in cash to write the check, and then failed to properly disclose that information.
But Britt’s defense lawyer, former Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente, pushed back on Lawton’s testimony, and tried to poke holes in her credibility. Corrente first got Lawton to confirm there had been coordination between her campaign and the Mattiello supporters before highlighting contradictory statements she made both publicly and through campaign finance documents in 2016.
Specifically, Corrente pointed to an interview she gave to broadcaster Dan Yorke, when she repeatedly claimed there hadn’t been any coordination. Later, she made a similar assertion through an independent expenditure filing.
“That wasn’t true, was it?” Corrente asked, evoking a quick response from Lawton.
“That was a mistake,” she said.
“It was the same mistake you made on Dan Yorke,” Corrente said.
Moreira repeatedly objected to Corrente’s strategy, suggesting his argument had little to do with whether Britt was guilty of laundering money.
During re-examination, Moreira revealed a series of text messages showing Britt had told Lawton not to worry about the media attention she received after the mailer was released.
“The media was coming at me from all different directions,” Lawton said
Cotugno was called to testify next.
The mail-ballot specialist, who owns a campaign consulting company called Winning Ways, worked for Mattiello’s 2016 campaign as a subcontractor to Britt. But the two men have worked on different campaigns over multiple decades.
“I’ve known Jeff for years,” Cotugno said.
Cotugno testified that he was approached before the election by Britt and Mattiello’s then-legal counsel Matt Jerzyk, who was also assisting the speaker’s re-election effort, and asked to write a check for Lawton’s campaign.
But the two men ultimately decided Cotugno was “too close to the campaign,” and asked instead that his wife — Teresa Graham — write the check, which didn’t strike him as wrong.
“I didn’t see anything wrong with it in the first place and I don’t see anything wrong with it today,” he added.
Unlike many of the other people slated to testify in the trial, Cotugno was never called in for questioning during a grand jury investigation last year. But he was questioned by investigators twice, including once last week.
During cross-examination, Corrente asked Cotugno whether he was pressured to change his testimony during that conversation with prosecutors, he said, “No, I don’t think so.”
“They asked me about whether I got reimbursed — or whatever the word is — for the campaign donation,” he said. “I continually said no because that’s the truth.”
The explanation was followed by an especially heated moment. Cotugno testified that prosecutors claimed Britt had said he had been reimbursed for the money. That made him “a little upset,” Cotugno said, because it meant Britt was “a liar.”
Corrente asked Cotugno if he knew that Britt had never said that, which evoked an impassioned objection from the attorney general’s criminal division chief Steve Dambruch.
The objection was sustained and Cotugno’s testimony came to a close.
The day ended with testimony from Graham, Cotugno’s wife, who struggled to remember anything related to the mailer. She repeatedly pointed out that the events took place several years ago, and that she donated “to a lot of political campaigns.”
“I’m not trying to be fresh, I just don’t remember,” Graham said.
Her testimony was cut short, however, as Procaccini had set a hard deadline of 4 p.m. to end proceedings.
The trial is slated to pick back up with Graham’s testimony at 10 a.m. Tuesday.