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Convention Center chair says grand jury questioned him about Mattiello

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WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — After emerging from closed-door grand jury testimony on Monday, the chairman of the R.I. Convention Center Authority said prosecutors’ questions to him focused narrowly on the alleged actions of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.

The comments by the chairman, Bernie Buonanno, offered a new sign that the statewide grand jury is probing whether Mattiello abused his power by retaliating against Convention Center leaders over a personnel investigation involving his friend James Demers, who also testified on Monday.

“They’re just looking to connect Mattiello with us,” Buonanno told Target 12 as he exited Kent County courthouse. “My only comment is that it’s the speaker that’s under investigation, not the Convention Center.”

Demers was the Convention Center’s director of security last year when he and another executive, Amanda Marzullo Wilmouth, were placed on administrative leave due to the personnel investigation. Both have now left the organization.

Demers’ attorney, John Manni, said his client had no comment.

House spokesperson Larry Berman confirmed Manni also works for Mattiello and the legislature as a $69,444-a-year attorney for the General Assembly, a job Manni has held since 2009. (The state’s transparency portal lists Manni’s salary as $120,324, but Berman said that’s because it automatically converts a part-time annual salary into how much it would be as a full-time job.)

Manni “provides legal counsel to House committees,” Berman said in an email.

Wilmouth herself also testified on Monday, even as it remains unclear exactly what transpired between her and Demers that caused the personnel investigation. Her father, Vincent Marzullo, told Target 12 she was “here as a witness and as someone who did not experience a good situation.”

“I place my trust in the attorney general’s office and I would expect the criminal justice system will issue justice in this matter,” Marzullo said. “I love my daughter, I support my daughter, I don’t think any father should have to be concerned or worried about their daughter, their safety and their wellbeing when they go to work,” he added.

The events being scrutinized began in December, when Mattiello ordered an unauthorized audit of the Convention Center soon after speaking with one of its board members about Demers’ situation. Mattiello cancelled the audit soon after Target 12 revealed he had failed to obtain authorization from the legislative leaders committee, as required under state law.

Prosecutors began investigating shortly thereafter.

Mattiello has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, saying he was motivated by unspecified allegations against Convention Center leaders that were brought to his attention by Demers. (At the same time, the speaker’s office has blocked an Access to Public Records Act request by Target 12 for a copy of the document spelling out those allegations.)

Mattiello’s chief of staff Leo Skenyon and administrative chief Frank Montanaro Jr. have both been called before the grand jury already, but the speaker himself had not been subpoenaed as of Friday.

Buonanno was one of at least three Convention Center board members who appeared before the grand jury on Monday, along with George Nee and Patrick Butler. Both Nee and Butler declined to comment about what they were asked.

The Convention Center Authority’s executive director confirmed last week that the grand jury has made no requests for financial records or other documents from the agency so far.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.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

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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