WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – With less than a month to go before Cranston voters will decide whether to re-elect him for a seventh term in office, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello on Thursday found himself defending his campaign from four years ago in front of a Superior Court judge.
The speaker testified under oath at Kent County Superior Court in the trial of his former political adviser Jeffrey Britt, who has been accused of laundering money and violating campaign finance laws while working for Mattiello’s re-election campaign in 2016.
The trial has shed new light on the uglier side of Rhode Island politics, including secret surveillance, improper exchanges of cash and a highly controversial pro-Mattiello mailer at the center of the case against Britt.
Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, repeatedly insisted that he knew nothing about the activities of his former adviser. The claim echoed what he’s been saying since it first emerged that his 2016 campaign coordinated with one-time political rival Shawna Lawton to try and get a competitive edge over Republican Steve Frias, who ran against Mattiello in the general election that year.
The speaker defeated Frias by just 85 votes.
While denying knowledge about much of the mechanics of his campaign, Mattiello said he was angry when he learned about the Lawton mailer so he called his State House chief of staff, Leo Skenyon, and “yelled at him for awhile” about it. (Mattiello described Skenyon as a campaign volunteer, but denied that he was the “de facto” campaign manager as others have indicated.)
“I was angry at the mailer,” Mattiello said, describing his conversation with Skenyon as “one-sided.”
“I thought it wasn’t a good idea,” he added. “I thought it was going to hurt my campaign in the last days of the campaign.”
More broadly, Mattiello described his entire 2016 re-election campaign as “so mismanaged.”
Watch the speaker’s full testimony here. (Story continues below.)
The Mattiello campaign’s explanation for what happened in the weeks leading up to the election has shifted over time. In 2016, Mattiello repeatedly denied that there had been any coordination between his campaign – including Britt – and Lawton.
“After the story broke, I talked to folks in my campaign,” Mattiello said during that fall during a debate on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. “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.”
That assertion proved to be untrue.
After the state’s Republican Party filed a complaint, the R.I. Board of Elections launched an investigation, but Mattiello’s campaign repeatedly obfuscated and stymied inquiries.
At one point, a consultant working for the campaign — Victor Pichette, who is also the state’s star witness — lied to investigators, claiming he didn’t know Britt even though he’d been working for him, according to testimony earlier in the week.
And despite Mattiello’s expressed frustration over the mailer, the speaker did not fire Britt after learning about it. He even testified that he asked the political operative to return and work for him again on his 2018 re-election campaign.
When asked why, Mattiello said he didn’t want Britt on anyone else’s side. “The word I had was he was either going to work for you, or against you,” the speaker said.
When it came out later that Britt’s name had been referred to the Rhode Island attorney general’s office — eventually sparking a grand jury investigation, and ultimately the charges against him — Mattiello’s campaign once again changed course, claiming Britt acted on his own.
Mattiello refused to answer questions outside the courthouse after his testimony ended, saying he would release a statement later.
The high-profile trial comes as Mattiello is seeking re-election this year against Republican challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung. A political newcomer, Fenton-Fung is seen as a potentially formidable opponent, in part because of the continued popularity in Cranston of her husband, Mayor Allan Fung.
And Mattiello is taking the challenge seriously enough to have spent upward of $150,000 on the race so far, according to campaign finance reports filed this week. During his testimony, Mattiello said running as a speaker turns a state representative election into a statewide affair, more like a gubernatorial race than a standard General Assembly race.
The Britt trial likely isn’t helping the speaker politically, splashing Mattiello’s name across nightly newscasts and daily newspaper headlines, tying him to a man charged with one felony count of money laundering and one misdemeanor count of violating campaign finance laws.
Britt is accused of paying $1,000 in cash to his then-colleague, Pichette, so the private investigator in turn could make a $1,000 check donation to Lawton. The former Republican candidate then used that money — along with another $1,000 donated by Teresa Graham, the common-law wife of another Mattiello consultant — to fund the campaign mailer in support of Mattiello.
The trial is technically about Britt, but much of the focus has been on Mattiello and the way his political team operates. Both the prosecution and defense have used painstaking detail to show through financial records and testimony that Mattiello pays consultants to do some of the campaign’s more unsavory work.
By keeping those consultants at arm’s length, Mattiello and his advisers have argued they didn’t know about all their activities, including earlier this week after it was revealed that Pichette had secretly photographed and kept track of who attended Frias’s events in 2016.
Frias earlier this week called the revelation “creepy.”
Pichette at the time was working for Britt, who was a paid Mattiello campaign consultant, and the speaker’s spokesperson distanced Mattiello from Pichette’s actions earlier this week.
“The speaker learned about the type of surveillance and opposition research employed by Mr. Britt after the fact, when a report was presented to him,” Mattiello spokesperson Patti Doyle said in a statement earlier this week. “He did not request this. To that point, the Speaker has never engaged in this sort of activity prior to or after the 2016 campaign. Said simply, this is how Jeff Britt operates.”
Asked about Pichette under oath Thursday, Mattiello said that he and his chief of staff were not aware that Britt hired Pichette. He also couldn’t recall meeting Ed Cotugno — the mail ballot specialist who testified Monday, another 2016 Mattiello campaign aide — in his chamber after the 2016 primary.
Cotugno testified that he was asked to have his wife, Teresa Graham, write a $1,000 donation to the Lawton campaign during a gathering at the speaker’s office.
“I have no recollection of that,” Mattiello said about Cotugno coming to his chambers.
Not remembering events and other details from 2016 was a common theme from Mattiello and his associates during Thursday’s testimony.
In addition to the speaker, Britt’s defense lawyer, former Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente, also called Matt Jerzyk to the stand. Mattiello’s former legal adviser, Jerzyk is a prominent Democratic operative in Rhode Island who worked with Britt and Skenyon on Mattiello’s re-election campaign in 2016.
Questioning from both Corrente and Assistant Attorney General John Moreira focused on what involvement Jerzyk had with the Mattiello campaign overall and specifically in creating the mailer in 2016.
He testified that while Skenyon would typically need to sign off on campaign mailers, he couldn’t remember if that happened with the Lawton mailer.
“It was four years ago, I don’t have a recollection,” he said.
At one point during cross-examination, Moreira tried to call into question the integrity of Jerzyk’s testimony, challenging the idea that Skenyon had no involvement in the approval of the mailer.
He pointed to an email from Jerzyk to the company that designed and distributed the Lawton mailer, which appeared to approve moving it forward.
“We’re good to go with this,” Jerzyk wrote at the time.
“Is that something you pulled out of thin air?” Moreira asked, sounding irritated with Jerzyk’s inability to remember the events surrounding the mailer.
“I simply can’t remember,” Jerzyk responded.
Skenyon, the speaker’s chief of staff and a leader of the 2016 campaign, also had trouble remembering all sorts of details. Skenyon was called to the testify after Jerzyk, and he offered little in the way of additional information.
He didn’t remember how much consultants were paid, he didn’t remember various communications with staff and he couldn’t recall questions from an interview he gave to investigators last fall.
Skenyon’s did remember, however, when asked specifically about a 2016 email exchange with Britt in which Skenyon wrote, “Frias’s wife isn’t living at the house. The kids aren’t there. The house is dark.”
Corrente asked Skenyon whether he was conducting surveillance of Frias’s home. Skenyon said that wasn’t the case, saying, “People had driven by the house and said no one was living there.”
Yet he went on to say he did not remember other details from that email exchange.
Steve Dambruch, chief of the state’s criminal division, later grilled Skenyon over invoices from Britt’s work on the campaign. Skenyon said he couldn’t remember prosecutors asking him for those documents last year, saying there were a lot of questions that day and he couldn’t remember specifics.
As a reminder, Dambruch said about the invoices, “You told us they weren’t available.”
Skenyon testified that he — along with Mattiello, Jerzyk, Doyle and the speaker’s State House spokesperson Larry Berman — would typically be involved in all decisions surrounding mailers. But he denied any involvement in the development and production of the Lawton mailer.
“To the best of my knowledge, I had no role in it,” Skenyon said.
When asked about specific text messages he sent at the time about mailers and working with Britt, Skenyon again said he couldn’t remember.
“This is a text message from over four years ago,” he said. “I have hundreds and hundreds each day.”
Skenyon did remember Mattiello being upset about the mailer and telling Skenyon he thought the mailer would send his campaign “down the drain,” making him look “desperate.”
When later asked if he thought Britt helped the Mattiello campaign, though, Skenyon responded: “Yeah, I think he did.”
The defense rested its case Thursday without calling Britt to testify on his own behalf.
Before the witness testimony, Judge Daniel Procaccini heard arguments over Corrente’s motion to dismiss the case, saying he will decide on that at a later date.
The two sides are scheduled to deliver closing arguments in court on Friday, with written ones to follow. Britt opted for a bench trial rather than a jury trial, and Procaccini has indicated he expects to render a decision in four to six weeks.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) 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