PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — On a sunny Tuesday morning a few days after Christmas in 2020, a man wearing a dark hoodie drove into the upper lot of the R.I. State House and parked his gray SUV.
He hopped out of the car, pulled up his hood and walked toward an entrance only open to lawmakers and senior state officials. Moments later John Conti, the House speaker’s senior deputy chief of staff, emerged from the State House, approached the man and gave him a hug.
The embrace, and the sometimes animated 25-minute conversation that followed, were captured on surveillance video obtained by Target 12. And the meeting caught the attention of the R.I. State Police’s intelligence unit, who identified the hooded man as Raymond “Scarface” Jenkins, a known associate of the New England Crime Family.
“This feels like a throwback,” Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John Marion told Target 12 after reviewing the video. “I can’t think of anything more brazen in terms of where they could have done this – on state property.”
A months-long Target 12 investigation has discovered Conti regularly interacted with known mob associates and even did business with at least one of them, according to thousands of pages of court documents, police reports, emails, photographs and text messages, along with surveillance video.
The state police investigation found Conti and Jenkins were secret business associates in an illegal marijuana startup, called Organic Bees, which regulators shut down earlier this year in part because the venture failed to disclose everyone involved in the company, including the two men.
Conti on Wednesday denied any involvement in Organic Bees, despite a mountain of state police evidence suggesting otherwise.
“Mr. Conti had no role in the business organization, Organic Bees,” Conti’s attorney, Jimmy Burchfield Jr., said in a statement. “Mr. Conti has been employed by the House of Representatives honorably serving under four speakers since first hired in December 2006.”
A spokesperson for House Speaker Joe Shekarchi said Wednesday he had no knowledge of Conti’s involvement in Organic Bees and gave no indication it would affect Conti’s $136,000-a-year job on his staff. On Thursday, however, Conti resigned from his State House job just hours before Target 12’s report.
While state police evidence shows Conti played an integral role in trying to get Organic Bees off the ground, he faced no direct penalties when the enterprise fell apart. But Jenkins and two others were arrested and charged in connection with the business.
Conti’s involvement in Organic Bees – which has not been previously reported – raised eyebrows among investigators in part because of his position in the speaker’s office, which has had significant sway over the shape of Rhode Island’s nascent recreational marijuana industry. Retail sales begin Dec. 1.
“The medicinal market is big, but it’s going to be nothing like the recreational market,” Marion said. “The stakes are huge.”
Jenkins wasn’t the only mob figure linked to Conti. State police documents say Conti attended several events with members of the New England Mafia, including one where so-called “loyalty payments” were paid up to mob leaders.
State police said the attendees included Edward “Eddie” Lato, who they say was recently named “underboss,” an underworld promotion that also has not been previously reported. He was previously identified as a capo.
Former State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell, who spent years investigating La Cosa Nostra in Rhode Island, described loyalty payments as “almost like a political campaign contribution to a mob guy.”
The idea that an aide to the House speaker has been attending such events, O’Donnell said, is “absolutely astounding.”
While Conti attended the event, a state police affidavit didn’t make clear whether he contributed a loyalty payment. He did not respond to a question seeking clarity.
Who is John Conti?
Conti, 59, has been a fixture at the State House since he was hired in 2006 under then-Speaker Bill Murphy as a policy analyst for Gordon Fox, who was majority leader at the time and succeeded Murphy as speaker four years later.
Conti has since moved up the ranks under Fox, Nicholas Mattiello and Shekarchi, all Democrats.
His exact day-to-day responsibilities as senior deputy chief of staff are somewhat unclear, but Marion said such positions generally involve “a mix of roles.”
“One day, you’re dealing with policy,” he said. “The next, you’re helping deliver the sandwiches.”
Shekarchi has said publicly that Conti “runs operations” and “does so impeccably,” calling him “such a hard-working guy.” His responsibilities included supervising staff, events and special projects, including repairs and renovations. But he’s also known as a problem-solver for House leaders, addressing the concerns of rank-and-file representatives.
When asked about Conti’s involvement with Organic Bees and his association with mobsters, Shekarchi denied ever knowing anything about it.
“Speaker Shekarchi has absolutely no knowledge of the business entity known as Organic Bees or any of the other allegations,” Shekarchi spokesperson Larry Berman said in a statement prior to Conti’s resignation.
Conti’s position in the speaker’s office gave him insight into internal State House deliberations over marijuana that he shared with others at Organic Bees, as detailed in thousands of text messages between Conti, Jenkins and two other business associates obtained and reviewed by Target 12.
“They will never allow 12 more compassion centers,” Conti texted the group on Jan. 20, 2018, shortly after then-Gov. Gina Raimondo unveiled a state budget that proposed expanding the number of medical marijuana sellers in the state.
“They may add a few,” he added. “I am keeping close tabs on it.”
A Cranston resident, Conti also has close ties to Federal Hill, where the late mob boss Raymond Patriarca ran the New England Mafia for more than three decades during its heyday of power and influence.
In addition to his full-time State House job, Conti has moonlighted as maître d’ at Camille’s, a high-end Italian restaurant tucked off of Atwells Avenue. The century-old eatery is one of the best-known spots on the Hill, a popular gathering place for political insiders, among others. (Senate President Dominick Ruggerio recently told The Boston Globe that Camille’s is his favorite restaurant; it was formerly owned by relatives of Shekarchi’s chief of staff, Ray Simone.)
‘It’s the worst-case scenario’
When Organic Bees submitted its license application to grow marijuana in Rhode Island in April 2017, the company’s legally required disclosure forms listed four people as “owners and other interest holders.”
A few months later one of those four, David Ferrante, joined a group text-message chain between himself and three others who were never listed on the Organic Bees disclosure forms. They included Conti and Jenkins.
The state police obtained more than 1,000 pages of texts messages sent within the group over a year-long period, revealing Conti and Jenkins were intimately involved in the business dealings of Organic Bees and played a leading role in making business decisions.
It’s unclear why their names were left off Organic Bees’ application in 2017, along with years of subsequent filings, as is required. But the inclusion of Jenkins would have prevented the company from getting a license due to his criminal history, including a felony drug charge, which disqualifies people from leadership roles under state law and marijuana regulations.
Conti indicated a desire to keep his role quiet, as well, despite the fact that all marijuana businesses are under constant video surveillance, which state regulators can review in real time.
“I have been thinking about it and I don’t think it’s smart for me to be there on camera today,” Conti wrote in the group text on June 7, 2018, skipping out on a meeting with a developer and a human-resources specialist.
“We have come to [sic] far to raise any red flags at this point,” he added.
Behind the scenes, however, text messages show Conti often communicated with his business associates from inside the State House and even shared information with them about marijuana policy before it was made public.
According to state police documents, around 4 p.m. on June 8, 2018, Conti texted Jenkins and others:
-No new Compassion Centers
All they want is three total.
-They left the plant limit untouched from last year.
-Compassion center fees for registration certificates go from $5,000 to $250,000”
Those details didn’t become public until more than six hours later, when then-Speaker Mattiello and his Democratic leadership team rolled out their $9.6 billion budget bill for the upcoming fiscal year.
“It’s the worst-case scenario,” Marion said about the texts. “That can’t be happening, that shouldn’t be happening. The consequences for that need to be as significant, as severe as possible, because with this new huge potential industry in the state we can’t have self-dealing.”
‘I got the Mayors office involved’
It wasn’t the only time the state police investigation found Conti appearing to use his political connections for the benefit of Organic Bees.
In May 2018, as state regulators were planning a site visit to the company that would help decide whether it received a cultivation license, the Organic Bees team was clearly in a panic.
As part of the licensing process, the cultivator had to provide a certificate of occupancy, or a CO, from Pawtucket officials showing the business was operating in commercial space compliant with local building codes.
Just days before the visit, however, the business still hadn’t secured the CO, to the clear frustration of Conti and Jenkins.
“Please tell me this is a joke,” Jenkins wrote on May 17.
Conti reached out to Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien’s chief of staff, Dylan Zelazo, to try and move things along.
“I just spoke with the Pawt Chief of Staff and he is calling the building inspector now,” Conti wrote. “I told him I need it done today because DBR going tomorrow.”
Conti subsequently learned from the city that the Organic Bees team hadn’t correctly filed a permit tied to electrical work done as part of rehabilitating the cultivation space.
“I am embarrassed that I even called the Mayors office. WTF,” he wrote, adding later, “I got the Mayors office involved and his Chief of Staff is right on it and said the permit issue needs to be corrected before the inspector will go out.”
Asked by Target 12 about the conversations, Zelazo acknowledged knowing Conti from the State House, but said he didn’t recognize the name Organic Bees. He also said it wasn’t unusual for Grebien and his staff to help people who reach out.
“Mayor Grebien places a great value on customer service and business friendliness,” he said. “It is not uncommon for individuals or businesses to reach out to this office for assistance working with city departments, and it is a priority of Mayor Grebien that we provide good customer service to everyone.”
Organic Bees was ultimately able to correct the permit at Pawtucket City Hall, opening the door for the company to secure the CO and have the state regulators come review their space.
“When you have the CO in hand, let me know,” Conti wrote at the time. “I want to call my friend and thank him.”
Rhode Island issued Organic Bees its Class B cultivation license the following week. Less than a month later, on June 11, the text group ended abruptly after Ferrante wrote, “Going to need a lawyer please.”
Police arrested Ferrante the same day for possession of 49 marijuana plants and more than 2 pounds of usable marijuana at his home.
“Call Lisa,” Jenkins replied, referencing Organic Bees’ attorney, Lisa Holley, who provides legal services for several marijuana businesses across Rhode Island.
“If Lisa saves this license it’s a miracle,” Conti wrote in the final text message between the group.
“State is looking to put people out of business,” he added.
Christmas party with mobsters
The state police investigation into Organic Bees started somewhat by chance in December 2019.
An undercover member of the state police intelligence unit was sitting in a bakery on Hope Street in Providence when a group of people including Jenkins entered, sat down next to the detective and started talking about “a marijuana cultivation and distribution operation.”
Intelligence unit trooper Mathew Lynch, who ultimately led the investigation, said law enforcement subsequently checked with state regulators and discovered Jenkins and others “did not possess any cultivation tag holder permits to lawfully grow marijuana in the State of Rhode Island.”
The discovery kicked off a multiyear investigation that ultimately resulted in the arrest of several people tied to Organic Bees, including Jenkins, Ferrara, Emily Warner and Dorian Ferreira.
Conti quickly landed on the radar of state police as it became clear the speaker’s aide was not only business associates with Jenkins but also his close friend. In one text message, Jenkins described Conti as his “oldest and most trustworthy friend.”
But state police interest in Conti heightened after investigators surveilled him “on multiple occasions at locations and events hosted and attended by high-ranking members and associates” of the New England Crime Family, Lynch wrote.
The most noteworthy occasion was a Dec. 22, 2020, Christmas party at Maria’s Cucina – an Italian restaurant on Broadway in Providence that was then co-owned by state Rep. Gregory Costantino.
The Christmas party is where state police reported it was likely loyalty payments were paid up to high-ranking mobsters, including underboss Lato and Matthew “Matty” Guglielmetti, a mob capo.
At some point prior to the Christmas party, state police also said in the affidavit they believed proceeds from Organic Bees were likely being “paid up” to upper ranks of the New England mob. Those details – along with the State House meeting – made the connections clear to investigators.
“It is also believed that given this investigation and the clear alliance between Raymond Jenkins [and] John Conti … this meeting and the meeting at the Rhode Island State House, included dialogue relative to this matter thus proving the [mob’s] direct connections to Organic Bees and Raymond Jenkins’ criminal operation,” Lynch wrote.
‘Something needs to change’
While Jenkins and others ultimately faced legal consequences as a result of the state police investigation, Conti did not. Brian Hodge, a spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Neronha, declined to comment specifically on Conti.
However, Hodge pointed to a potential loophole in the state’s current marijuana laws, saying there aren’t any criminal consequences for people who don’t disclose their personal interests in marijuana businesses.
“That issue remains under review by this office,” Hodge said. “Whether the Medical Marijuana Act ought to be amended to include criminal penalties for individuals or entities who fail to disclose their financial interest in these operations is worthy of serious consideration.”
Chris Raia, a spokesperson for the Department of Business Regulation, pointed to the administrative action the department took against Organic Bees, which effectively shut down the business earlier this year. Raia said the state is currently developing new rules for the industry.
“Violations that reflect adversely on an applicant’s fitness to engage in the industry may also serve as the basis for adverse action on an application,” he said. “Whether prior disciplinary action will be a bar to applying for a new adult use license will be governed by the regulations promulgated by the Cannabis Control Commission.”
Shekarchi helped ensure the state’s new marijuana law allowed him to offer three recommendations to Gov. Dan McKee for appointments to the Cannabis Control Commission, the new body that will oversee the recreational market. In July, he submitted the names of former Rep. Robert Jacquard, former Warwick Police Chief Stephen McCartney, and Rachel Russell.
Depending on the outcome of the gubernatorial election next month, either McKee or his Republican opponent, Ashley Kalus, will nominate the first three people to serve on the commission. McKee plans to name his picks early next year if he wins, Raia said.
Marion argues the McKee administration’s final rules for marijuana should be designed to prevent corruption. “If you don’t follow the law, and in this case don’t disclose your ownership as is required by law, you shouldn’t be able to walk away,” he said. “Something needs to change.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Sarah Guernelli contributed to this report.