PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee’s chief of staff, Tony Silva, said Wednesday he welcomes a newly announced investigation into his involvement in a controversial land deal in Cumberland, insisting he did nothing wrong as he sought state and local permission for the development.
In an exclusive interview with Target 12 as he left the State House, Silva said he supported the governor’s decision Wednesday to request an independent probe by R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha. The state’s top prosecutor has agreed to look into whether Silva tried to influence decisions about whether he would receive approval to develop the property at 45 Canning St.
Silva, who has served as chief of staff to McKee since 2014, said the review by Neronha and the R.I. State Police will “bring a fresh perspective to what’s been going on.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Silva said.
“Let me make it perfectly clear to you,” he added. “I didn’t intervene in anything.”
Story continues below video
The attorney general’s investigation comes two days after Target 12 first reported a series of text and email messages that show Silva requested an impromptu meeting with Cumberland Mayor Jeff Mutter on March 31. The meeting took place less than a month after Silva became the top staffer in the governor’s office and nearly a year after he claims to have given up his financial interest in the Canning Street land.
Mutter has told Target 12 that Silva tried to convince him not to object to a permit his family was seeking from the R.I. Department of Environmental Management to build a home on the Cumberland property, which is 93% wetlands. Neighbors and town officials have fought against the proposal for years, arguing it would exacerbate flooding in the area.
After the meeting, Silva sent Mutter a text message saying he planned to allow his son, Ross Silva, to buy the lot, according to messages obtained through a public records request.
“Therefore I won’t be connected to it at all at the time of sale,” Silva wrote. “Hopefully this will make it easier for you at Town Hall.”
Mutter called McKee after the March 31 meeting and says he expressed concern to the governor about his interactions with Silva. (McKee has refused to characterize that conversation.)
On Wednesday, Silva denied that he intervened in any way to get the Canning Street property developed, calling the idea that he tried to get the town to drop its objection to the land deal “ludicrous.”
“That is not what Tony Silva does,” he said.
“I have a lot of respect for Mayor Mutter,” Silva said. “The discussion I had with him was out of concern for him. If he misinterpreted it, I’m sorry about that.”
While McKee requested the attorney general’s investigation, so far he has stood by his top adviser. During a news conference Tuesday, McKee said he was OK with Silva’s decision to contact Mutter about a private land deal, saying mayors take those types of calls all the time. McKee formerly served as Cumberland mayor, while Silva was the town’s chief of police.
The governor also said he personally called the DEM’s acting director, Terry Gray, to inquire about the issue and was told Silva didn’t have any “undue influence” on DEM’s decision to approve the permit this year. The approval came after DEM rejected a previous application to develop the wetlands in 2019.
In his announcement, McKee said he asked the investigation to look into the permitting process. And he’s directed all state agencies, including DEM, to cooperate with investigators.
Neronha spokesperson Blake Collins said the attorney general spoke with McKee and State Police Col. James Manni on Wednesday morning and has only just begun to embark on the investigation.
“The scope of any investigation by this office is determined by the attorney general,” Collins said, adding that there are “no limits” on what will be reviewed.
Silva said he will cooperate with investigators and insisted that he’s done nothing but hold himself to the “highest ethical standards” throughout his career.
“I’ve exuded uncompromising integrity to the people I’ve met in my life and the people I have coached and taught,” he said. “That’s Tony Silva. And I will always do that until they put me in the ground.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram