PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island Republicans blasted Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello on Wednesday after Target 12 revealed a grand jury is now investigating how his campaign aides worked behind the scenes to undermine his GOP opponent in 2016.
“We are pleased that the attorney general has commenced a grand jury investigation into the illegal activities of House Speaker Mattiello’s campaign in 2016,” R.I. Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki said in a statement. “We hope the grand jury investigation ends the cover-up.”
Target 12 reported Tuesday night that Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office is bringing witnesses before a grand jury to testify about a mailer supporting Mattiello that his aides were later revealed to have illegally coordinated with his one-time rival. The mailer informed voters that former Republican candidate Shawna Lawton had switched sides and was now backing the speaker, who went on to win by just 85 votes.
A subsequent Board of Elections probe resulted in only a warning for Mattiello himself, but eventually the board referred one of his 2016 campaign aides — Jeff Britt — to the attorney general’s office for potential criminal prosecution.
It’s unclear how extensively the grand jury is looking into the Mattiello campaign’s activities at the time, but Britt recently retained former Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente to represent him in the case.
Target 12 confirmed Wednesday that Lawton has also hired an attorney, John Grasso, to represent her in the case.
Grasso declined to reveal whether Lawton has been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury, but said, “I’m not going to deny that she is involved in the ongoing investigation.”
Mattiello campaign spokesperson Patti Doyle declined to respond to Cienki, referring back to a statement she issued Tuesday night that noted the Board of Elections let Mattiello off with a warning after finding he and Lawton did not personally coordinate the mailer. She said the campaign has “no involvement in or knowledge of” the grand jury investigation.
Common Cause Rhode Island praised the attorney general’s office for bringing the case before the grand jury.
“We have long believed the Board of Elections came to the wrong conclusion that no coordination could be established between the speaker and Shawna Lawton,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause.
“We hope that the attorney general’s investigation sends a clear message to all candidates for office in Rhode Island that our campaign finance laws are being vigorously enforced,” he said. “Any method of circumventing the legal limits on political contributions, whether through excessive in-kind donations, or coordinated expenditures, should not be tolerated.”
Cienki pointed out that when Mattiello was pressed about the Lawton mailer in a debate on WPRI 12 the weekend before the 2016 election, he said, “After the story broke, I talked to folks in the campaign and nobody mentioned a particular issue. … I looked into it, and I came to the conclusion that nobody in my campaign has any knowledge of that issue.” (He has since called the mailer “a disaster.”)
Doyle declined to say whether Mattiello talked specifically to Britt or Matt Jerzyk, another campaign aide who was involved in the Lawton mailer, before making that statement, and what their responses were if he did.
“We don’t intend to look backwards at past campaigns but instead, remain focused on issues of import today,” Doyle said, adding, “We repeat – we have no knowledge of or involvement in this issue.”
Cienki also tied the investigation to the R.I. Ethics Commission’s recent vote to investigate a GOP complaint about Gov. Gina Raimondo negotiating the IGT deal while IGT’s lobbyist and former chairman, Don Sweitzer, at the same time is serving as treasurer and chief fundraiser for the Democratic Governors Association, which she is chairing.
“Rhode Island appears to be falling to a new ethical low,” Cienki said. “The speaker’s campaign is under a grand jury investigation while the governor is under an ethics investigation for a billion-dollar no-bid deal. Rhode Island must do better than this.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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