PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A statewide grand jury is actively investigating alleged campaign finance improprieties involving House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s 2016 re-election effort, the Target 12 Investigators have learned.
Multiple people familiar with the matter tell Target 12 the probe involves one of that campaign’s strangest subplots: how Shawna Lawton, a political newcomer, went from seeking the GOP nomination against Mattiello in September to endorsing the Democratic speaker in a mailer to voters a month later. At the time Mattiello was fighting for his political life against Republican Steve Frias; he wound up winning by just 85 votes.
A Board of Elections investigation subsequently uncovered texts that showed Mattiello aides Jeff Britt and Matt Jerzyk were involved in the funding and distribution of the mailer — despite the fact that it was reported to the board as an independent expenditure, which under state law cannot be coordinated with a campaign.
The board issued warnings to Mattiello and Lawton last year after finding no evidence that they coordinated the mailer directly, but also initiated contempt proceedings against others involved, including Britt and Jerzyk, for ignoring subpoenas. The board went on to refer Britt to the attorney general’s office in September 2018 for potential prosecution.
Victor Pichette — one of two Mattiello-connected donors who wrote $1,000 checks to fund the Lawton mailer — confirmed he went before the grand jury to testify on Monday, after receiving a subpoena a few months ago. He said his testimony lasted about 20 minutes.
“I’m not going to go into detail on it,” Pichette told Target 12. “It has nothing to do with me. This is bad enough as it is. I was a bit player in helping something — I don’t know everybody else involved, I really don’t. … I thought this was over.”
Pichette said prosecutors told him he is not in legal jeopardy. He said he now regrets getting involved in the Mattiello-Lawton affair in the first place.
“This is going to ruin everything I’m doing,” Pichette said. “I didn’t do anything, from my end of it.”
Kristy dosReis, a spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Neronha, said the attorney general’s office does not comment on grand jury activity. However, she confirmed last year’s referral regarding Britt remains active and under review.
“Upon taking office in January, Attorney General Neronha had that matter assigned to our Public Integrity Unit,” dosReis said. “Beyond that, I am not able to comment.”
Patti Doyle, a spokesperson for Mattiello on campaign matters, said in response to the Target 12 report: “The Board of Elections resolved this issue for the campaign more than one year ago. We have no involvement in or knowledge of what was reported on earlier today.”
In addition, Target 12 has confirmed that Britt has retained former Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente to represent him in the case.
In a brief interview Tuesday, Corrente said Britt has not been subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury.
“I can’t tell you too much because I’m just getting involved,” Corrente said.
R.I. State Police Col. James Manni referred all questions to the attorney general’s office.
Lawton and Jerzyk did not respond to a request for comment about the grand jury investigation.
Stephen Erickson, the Board of Elections’ vice chair, said he could not comment.
Former R.I. Republican Party Chair Brandon Bell, who filed the complaint against Mattiello’s campaign over the Lawton mailer, criticized the Board of Elections last year for not coming down harder on the speaker. “There should be consequences for breaking campaign finance laws,” Bell said at the time.
“Under Rhode Island law, are candidates not going to be held accountable for the illegal actions of their campaign operatives by claiming ignorance while these campaign underlings refuse to comply with subpoenas?” he asked.
Neronha, then a Democratic candidate for attorney general, at the time called the Board of Elections’ findings in the Lawton controversy — as well as a separate probe that discovered $72,000 in illegal spending by Mattiello’s campaign committee — “deeply concerning.”
“Everyone needs to play by the rules, and when they don’t, it’s critically important that those with campaign and election oversight take significant steps to make sure that there are consequences,” Neronha said.
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