PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s top House Republican claims he’s been put in a legal quandary after receiving a document request from the defendant in a corruption case stemming from House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s 2016 re-election campaign.
House Minority Leader Blake Filippi also says the request reinforces his own argument in separate litigation over an obscure legislative committee that controls millions in taxpayer money.
A lawyer for Jeff Britt — who was indicted in October for money laundering dating back to his time working on Mattiello’s 2016 campaign — recently requested documents from Filippi in his capacity as secretary of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, known also as JCLS.
JCLS was already the subject of a clash between Mattiello and Filippi, who points out that the five-member committee hasn’t met in a decade and is controlled by its chairman, Mattiello. At a news conference Wednesday, Filippi said he cannot access the requested documents — related to federal funds spent on the 2020 Census — because the speaker “will be a witness” in the Britt trial.
Britt’s defense attorney is former Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente.
The speaker “has an inherent conflict as a witness in this criminal trial and the documents may relate to things he could’ve possibly done improperly on JCLS and Jeff Britt wants to know,” Filippi said. “I doubt Britt’s attorney is going on a fishing expedition.”
The quandary, Filippi said at a news conference Wednesday, stems from the fact he could otherwise face civil litigation if he does not release the requested documents.
“This is why we asked Attorney General [Peter] Neronha to pay for legal counsel for us six weeks ago,” Filippi said.
Neronha turned down Filippi’s requests for legal support in a six-page letter on Wednesday, saying his office was not involved in the GOP leader’s initial decision to sue over JCLS, and emphasizing his extreme reluctance to become involved in litigation involving the actions of an equal branch of government.
“Although I regret that we cannot more fully accommodate your present requests, I welcome the opportunity to work with you and other members of the General Assembly in the future,” Neronha wrote. He added, “On a more personal note, I would also like to thank you for your service to the people of Rhode Island and for your commitment to accountability and transparency in the conduct of the public’s business.”
Mattiello would not comment on Filippi’s Wednesday news conference, but his spokesman Larry Berman said it “was purely political theater.”
Berman said $500,000 in state funding was appropriated for the 2020 Census, but the “JCLS has no records pertaining to this matter.”
“The Department of Administration is responsible for this funding and any federal funds that may have been used to supplement it,” Berman said.
Filippi and other state GOP leaders used the news conference to continue their criticism of what they claim is Mattiello’s “illegal control” of the JCLS and the $46 million annual budget that funds the General Assembly. Filippi is currently suing Mattiello — and others — over who controls the committee.
Minority Whip Mike Chippendale said the lack of JCLS oversight year after year is shameful.
“It’s patently unfair to the entire state of Rhode Island and the people who are funding this million-dollar-a-week spending with absolutely zero oversight,” Chippendale said.
The Britt case is focused on his alleged attempt to hide a money trail that paid for a mailer sent out in the fall of 2016 endorsing Mattiello, who was in a toe-to-toe political match with Republican challenger Steven Frias. Mattiello defeated Frias by a slim margin of 85 votes.
According to the indictment, Britt met with Frias’s onetime GOP rival Shawna Lawton in October of that year to ask her to endorse Mattiello. Leaked messages indicated Britt suggested Mattiello would support Lawton’s anti-vaccination priorities in exchange for her backing.
Britt is accused of giving $1,000 in cash to someone named in the indictment as “Donor 1” to cover a check that individual would write to Lawton for part of the mailer expense. After depositing the money, Lawton wrote a $2,150 check from her campaign account and gave it to Britt to pay for the mailer, according to the indictment.
The multi-layered transaction from Britt’s cash to Donor 1’s check and then Lawton’s mailer are the foundation for the money laundering charge.
Britt is also charged with a misdemeanor prohibited campaign contribution charge for allegedly failing to report he was the actual source of the money.
In addition to this new development in the fight over the JCLS, Filippi alleged the Mattiello-controlled committee “is the epicenter in no fewer than three grand jury investigations, or criminal prosecutions.”
As Target 12 has reported, a grand jury currently examining the circumstances surrounding Mattiello’s unauthorized December order to audit the R.I. Convention Center. The order — which Mattiello made through the JCLS — came at the same time the speaker’s friend was embroiled in a personnel issue at the entertainment facility.
Filippi also said, “there is a rumored grand jury about JCLS employees benefiting from cannabis laws we passed.”
When asked about the Filippi’s claims about the grand jury investigations, Berman referenced his earlier statement.
“Leader Filippi’s press conference today was purely political theater,” he said.