WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – In at times fiery testimony, a key state witness in the trial of R.I. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s former political adviser claimed he received cash to write a check in support of a controversial campaign mailer at the heart of the case.
Victor Pichette, a campaign consultant who specializes in opposition research, was called to the stand Tuesday in the high-profile trial of his former client, Jeffrey Britt, who worked on Mattiello’s re-election campaign in 2016.
Pichette, who received immunity from prosecutors in exchange for testifying, told the court that Britt gave him $1,000 in cash in 2016, which he deposited before writing a $1,000 check to the speaker’s one-time GOP rival Shawna Lawton to help pay for a mailer in which she endorsed the Democratic speaker over her fellow Republican Steve Frias.
“He asked if I would make a $1,000 donation,” Pichette said about Britt, adding that Britt told him, “It’ll be 100% legal.”
The exchange between the two men is key to the state’s argument against Britt, who is on trial for money laundering and violating campaign finance laws. In addition to Pichette’s testimony, Assistant Attorney General John Moreira detailed how Pichette made a $1,000 deposit into his bank account before withdrawing the same amount of money in the form of a check paid to Lawton’s campaign.
Pichette said he got worried after a complaint about the mailer was filed with the state’s Board of Elections, claiming Britt told him at the time “not to worry about anything.”
“I got nervous right there, I can tell you that,” Pichette said.
Britt has pleaded not guilty to the accusations against him, claiming the state’s case is factually incorrect and he’s become the campaign’s fall guy. His defense attorney, former Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente, spent nearly an hour trying to poke holes in Pichette’s testimony, underscoring ambiguity between what he said Wednesday and what he told a grand jury last fall.
“You are either lying then, or lying now, which was it?” Corrente said.
Corrente’s cross examination of Pichette became heated at times, forcing Judge Daniel Procaccini to interject at one point to remind Pichette that he was supposed to answer questions, not ask them.
Beyond the checks and bank records presented as evidence by the prosecution, documentation of Pichette’s dealings with Britt — or any other client — from 2016 are scant. Pichette confirmed he had no invoices, no canceled checks, no bills, no ledgers and no notes from his time working for the Mattiello campaign, underscoring how much of Rhode Island’s behind-the-scenes campaigning remains an all-cash business.
To that end, Pichette claimed Britt paid him a $1,000 cash retainer to do opposition and surveillance work for the Mattiello campaign, which was an amount Corrente challenged repeatedly. The defense pointed out Pichette’s claim that Britt asked him to make the contribution to the Lawton campaign contradicted what had told the grand jury: Britt owed him money at the time.
Corrente also said Pichette told the grand jury that he doubted Britt provided him with the information required to write the check to Lawton, underscoring the ambiguity around the exchange and debt of money between the two men.
“You charged Mr. Britt $3,500 for the opposition package, didn’t you?” Corrente asked sharply.
“I don’t recall,” Pichette retorted.
Pichette’s testimony also revealed he did surveillance of Frias, the Republican nominee against Mattiello, that included going to the candidate’s, home, fundraisers and taking pictures of who attended.
A Mattiello spokesperson, Patti Doyle, claimed Tuesday the speaker never asked for that work.
“The speaker learned about the type of survelillance and opposition research employed by Mr. Britt after the fact, when a report was presented to him,” Doyle wrote in an email. “To that point, the speaker has never engaged in this sort of activity prior to or after the 2016 campaign. Said simply, this is how Jeff Britt operates.”
Frias said Tuesday he always suspected he was being followed and that his wife had found the courtroom revelation “creepy.”
“This is just another example of how the speaker ran a low-life campaign,” Frias said in an email. “Which reflects the type of person he is.”
Pichette repeatedly said he never worked for the speaker directly, but rather as a consultant through Britt. But Corrente pushed back on the claim, accusing Pichette of trying to forge a relationship with the speaker through Britt in order to land a state job.
“You were trying to curry favor with the speaker because you wanted to land a state job, right?” Corrente asked, referencing internet searches Pichette made at the time looking for available state jobs.
Pichette said he was going through a tough time in 2016, including getting diagnosed with leukemia, having a heart attack and going through a divorce.
“I was looking for a job,” he said, but he rejected the idea that he was trying to curry favor with the speaker.
“I would never want a patronage job,” he added.
The second day of testimony in the Britt case also included a brief appearance by Teresa Graham, who like Pichette cut a $1,000 check for the Lawton campaign to help pay for the mailer. But she and her husband Edward Cotugno, who also testified Monday, denied ever getting reimbursed for the donation. Graham had already answered questions Monday and spent only a few minutes on the stand Tuesday.
Two other local Democratic campaign consultants, Brad Dufault and Paul Sasso, also testified after Pichette on Wednesday, offering new insight into how the controversial pro-Mattiello mailer was designed, printed and distributed.
Dufault, who owns Checkmate Consulting Group, said he helped design the Lawton mailer and then coordinated the printing and distribution with Sasso and members of Mattiello’s campaign, including Britt and Matt Jerzyk. (Jerzyk, who was working for Mattiello at the State House as a legal counsel at the time, is on the witness list for the defense team.)
“It was the Mattiello campaign,” he said when asked who contacted him about the Lawton mailer, adding he never had any communication with the Lawton’s campaign, noting he didn’t want to be associated with the opposing party.
To that end, the mailer was technically billed through Sasso’s company, All The Answers Inc.
After the mailer came out and questions started swirling about how it was funded, created and distributed, Britt and Dufault talked about the situation through a series of text messages.
“Let’s get past election,” Britt wrote in a text to Dufault.
“I know,” Dufault responded, calling the public attention a “media kerfuffle.”
“I just prepped Paul [Sasso] on how not to talk to the press,” he added.
Sasso’s testimony lasted only a few minutes, as he claimed he didn’t know who provided the $2,150 check that paid for the mailer, and that he’d never met Britt in his life.
“I believe it was dropped off,” Sasso said about the check.
Dufault continues to work for the Mattiello campaign today, and has been ever since the 2016 election.
The trial ended relatively early Tuesday, as Procaccini indicated Wednesday’s first witness, Board of Elections director of campaign finance Richard Thornton, could take a while.
Procaccini also explained that while the trial is scheduled to last one week, he isn’t likely to render a decision of innocence or guilt for four to six weeks afterward.
The timing, which he said is typical for his decisions on bench trials, could mean a verdict is handed down sometime around or after the Nov. 3 election when Mattiello is facing Republican challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung.
Mattiello and his chief of staff, Leo Skenyon, have also been called as witnesses by the defense.