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Here’s why a grand jury is investigating the Convention Center controversy

Target 12

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – A Rhode Island grand jury began hearing testimony Monday about whether House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello targeted R.I. Convention Center leaders over his friend’s personnel investigation, a scandal that’s captured Rhode Islanders’ attention for weeks.

The testimony started with R.I. Convention Center Authority executive director Jim McCarvill, whose quasi-public agency oversees the Convention Center and Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence.

McCarvill testified for more than two hours, telling reporters afterward that a large part of the conversation – which is kept secret unless witnesses decide to divulge information publicly – was related to the circumstances around why Mattiello ordered a so-called performance audit of the Convention Center in December.

They asked “if there were personnel issues driving the decision for an audit and what was our perception for being asked to — or ordered — to do an audit,” McCarvill said. “The timing is really curious. You have an issue and then something happened that hasn’t happened in 25 years.”

The controversy started last month when Target 12 first revealed that Mattiello had ordered an unusual audit of the Convention Center at the same time that his friend, James Demers, was caught up in a personnel matter there.

The audit, which Mattiello has since canceled, stirred up questions about whether he abused his power to retaliate against the facility for its treatment of Demers, who at last check was in the process of being removed from his position.

“The board was concerned that we were being sent a message that we didn’t need to hear,” McCarvill said. “We’re there to do the right thing all the time.”

Mattiello’s actions – which he has repeatedly denied had anything to do with his friend’s situation – nonetheless sparked a state police investigation, ultimately resulting in the statewide grand jury issuing subpoenas last week.

Paul MacDonald, a union leader and Convention Center board member, was also expected to testify Monday afternoon. He declined to discuss specifics, but expressed some frustration when asked about the grand jury investigation.

“I don’t understand it,” he said, throwing up his hands.

Here’s a primer on what’s happened so far, and what might come up during the closed-door hearings at the Kent County Courthouse in Warwick.

The Convention Center

The controversy surrounds Mattiello, who has served as House speaker since 2014, but the web of people connected is widespread.

Target 12 has confirmed at least two people connected to the Convention Center were slated to testify Monday, and two more are expected to discuss the topic later this week.  

  • Paul MacDonald is a central figure to the controversy. As Target 12 first reported, just days before he ordered the audit Mattiello confronted MacDonald, a Convention Center board member and longtime union leader.
  • Lawrence Lapore is general manager of the Convention Center and Demers’ boss. Demers and Lepore’s assistant general manager, Amanda Marzullo Wilmouth, were placed on administrative leave for a personnel matter.
  • Robert Lauro is director of events and operations at the Convention Center and the only individual on this list that isn’t also known to have been interviewed by state police. He told Target 12 Friday he’s not quite sure why he’s been called to testify.
  • Jim McCarvill is executive director of the R.I. Convention Center Authority, a quasi-public agency that owns the Convention Center, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and the Veterans Memorial Auditorium. While not technically responsible for Convention Center employees, McCarvill was the recipient of Mattiello’s order audit two days before Christmas.

Mattiello’s inner circle

While Mattiello is central to the investigation, he had not received a subpoena as of Friday afternoon, according to his spokesperson Larry Berman.

But two of his closest allies are scheduled to testify this week.

  • Leo Skenyon, Mattiello’s chief of staff, has refused to comment to Target 12 about the investigation, but has confirmed to other news outlets that he’s received a subpoena. Skenyon, a longtime political operative who has been Mattiello’s top aide since the Cranston Democrat became speaker, is no stranger to investigations related to his boss: state police last year interviewed him on a separate issue involving money laundering and former Mattiello aide Jeff Britt.
  • Frank Montanaro Jr. is executive director of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, which operates the day-to-day business of the General Assembly and manages its roughly $46 million budget. Montanaro, another top aide to Mattiello, has likewise been tainted by scandal: a Target 12 investigation in 2017 discovered he received free college tuition for two family members despite leaving his job at Rhode Island College to work for Mattiello.

The backstory

Demers, a former state police detective commander, lives in Mattiello’s Cranston district and is a longtime friend of the speaker.

After retiring from the state police, Demers landed a job at the Convention Center where he worked as security director, until the Convention Center’s private operator ASM Global put him on administrative leave following an internal investigation into a personnel matter involving him and Wilmouth.

While Mattiello denies Demers’ personnel issue had anything to do with his decision to order the audit, he has said Demers contacted him prior to requesting it. Mattiello said he learned troubling financial information about the Convention Center from Demers, and that was the impetus for wanting to take a closer look at the entertainment facility.

The speaker has declined to share more specific details.

McCarvill said Monday the grand jury seemed more interested in the performance audit and the personnel matter rather than anything related to the convention center’s financials.

How did the Republican Party get involved?

After Target 12 started reporting about the audit in January, questions began swirling around the legality of Mattiello’s actions.

He ordered the audit under the auspices of the JCLS, which is technically a five-member committee, but in practice is controlled by its chairperson, Mattiello.

But while the speaker has broad authority to unilaterally make decisions without the consent of his fellow committee members, under state law a majority vote is required to authorize a performance audit — and he confirmed during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers that he did not receive such authorization, suggesting he can make majority decisions unilaterally.

House Minority Leader Blake Filippi, a Block Island Republican and fellow JCLS committee member, decided to challenge Mattillo’s authority over the committee, filing a lawsuit against the speaker and other members on Jan. 23.

Mattillo canceled the audit within two hours. The lawsuit is still pending.

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

Walt Buteau, Tim White and Ted Nesi contributed to this story.

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

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