PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A R.I. Superior Court judge on Tuesday ruled in favor of House Minority Leader Blake Filippi, allowing a lawsuit tied to a controversial legislative committee that controls the General Assembly’s $54 million budget to move forward.
Filippi, the top Republican in the R.I. House of Representatives, filed an initial complaint against his fellow legislative leaders nearly two years ago, alleging he’d been unlawfully excluded from meetings of the powerful Joint Committee of Legislative Services.
“You can’t exclude a member of the JCLS from the decision-making process because you don’t like their opinion,” Filippi said during a State House news conference following the decision.
The committee is chaired by the speaker of the House, and its membership comprises three top Democrats and two top Republicans from the House and Senate. The body holds hiring and firing power over legislative staff, and it ultimately decides how the legislature should spend its multimillion-dollar operating budget. But it hasn’t regularly held formal meetings in more than a decade.
Retired Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein, who was tapped to oversee the unusual lawsuit, ordered that Filippi should be allowed to file an amended complaint that alleges his constitutional rights have been violated.
The defendants in the lawsuit include former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, current House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, along with others. (Mattiello was speaker when Filippi sued.) The defendants argued last fall that the amended complaint shouldn’t be allowed because lawmakers are shielded from certain legal scrutiny by other branches of government.
Silverstein rejected that argument, explaining in his order that the defendants didn’t provide any evidence showing Filippi’s exclusion from the JCLS meetings fell under that type of “separation of powers” protection.
“While Defendants assert their actions fall within the definition of legislative acts that would allow for absolute legislative immunity, the Court is not persuaded that exclusion of an individual from a committee falls within that definition,” Silverstein wrote in his decision.
The lawsuit was filed in the wake of a controversial audit of the R.I. Convention Center ordered by Mattiello through the committee’s then-executive director, Frank Montanaro Jr., in December 2019. The audit – made at the same time that Mattiello’s close friend was embroiled in a personnel issue at the convention center – spurred a grand jury investigation, along with the lawsuit by Filippi, who challenged the authority of the JCLS. No charges have ever been filed out of the criminal investigation.
After the lawsuit was filed, the relationship between Filippi and Mattiello soured quickly, as the two battled both publicly and privately over JCLS-related issues. Mattiello, who lost re-election in 2020, has recently re-emerged at the State House as a registered lobbyist.
“We need to lead by example up here,” Filippi said Tuesday. “I also think it’s important to demonstrate that we’re all subject to the rule of law, even the most powerful people in the state.”
A year ago, Silverstein dealt a blow to Filippi’s legal argument, deciding the issue was political and the court had no place deciding on the underlying accusations. The decision — along with Shekarchi taking over as speaker and unilaterally hiring Henry Kinch as the committee’s new executive director — spurred Filippi to file the amended complaint, alleging he’s been deprived of his civil and constitutional rights.
“We understand that Justice Silverstein has ruled that Minority Leader Filippi may amend his complaint to restate his claims regarding the JCLS,” Shekarchi and Ruggerio said in a joint statement. The Democrats serve as chairman and vice chairman of the JCLS, respectively.
“While we disagree with him on this procedural issue, we respect Justice Silverstein’s decision,” they added. “We will now defend these claims on the merits.”
Filippi said he’s looking for Shekarchi and other members to now come together to establish a plan for the JCLS to meet regularly, adding he’s willing to drop the legal complaint if that happens. If not, he said, Filippi warned he’s ready to move forward with discovery — a legal proceeding that could result in the mandatory disclosure of internal documents maintained by the JCLS.
“Come to the table and resolve this,” Filippi said. “Let’s put this dispute behind us.”