PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello last week claimed the grand jury investigation into his decision to order an improper audit of the R.I. Convention Center has ended, but his campaign has been unable to provide any direct evidence for the assertion in the midst of a tough re-election race.
A grand jury launched the investigation earlier this year after Target 12 revealed Mattiello ordered a highly unusual audit of the Convention Center at the same time his friend was caught up in a personnel issue there.
Asked about the grand jury probe last week, Mattiello insisted it had come to a close.
“That’s not an open matter,” he said Friday during a debate on WJAR-TV. “As far as I’m concerned it’s been looked at and it’s closed.”
If true, the speaker’s claim would mean the end of a high-profile probe that led to several of the speaker’s closest political allies, along with top executives of the Convention Center, appearing before a grand jury earlier this year.
Yet there has been no public acknowledgement of a vote by the grand jury to either indict someone or decline to bring charges (referred to as a “no true bill”) related to the Convention Center affair. And when asked how the speaker knew the investigation was over – since grand jury proceedings happen in secret – Mattiello campaign spokesperson Patti Doyle offered no direct evidence for his assertion.
“The speaker believes the matter is closed based on the lengthy passage of time since the start of the investigation, and reports that the grand jury hearing the matter has concluded its work,” Doyle wrote in an email Friday.
Doyle would not provide specific examples of the “reports” she was referencing, and when pressed for an answer Monday, she dismissed the question by suggesting Target 12 use its own sources “within the courts that can help.”
Because the investigatory proceedings are kept under wraps, there is scant public documentation related to the grand jury investigation, and jurors are discouraged from discussing it publicly. A spokesperson for R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha, who oversees grand juries, cited a longstanding policy to neither confirm nor deny the existence of any ongoing investigation.
However, Neronha told The Public’s Radio earlier this year he would most likely inform any target of a grand jury investigation if it ended without criminal charges. And while Mattiello was never publicly named as the target of the Convention Center probe, other individuals questioned as part of it have indicated the speaker’s actions were the focus.
Doyle did not respond to a question about whether the speaker had received any formal communication from Neronha telling him the grand jury had ended its work.
Target 12 on Friday also interviewed four people who were questioned by the grand jury earlier this year, and each one said they hadn’t heard from anyone that the process had ended. The people contacted included R.I. Convention Center Authority executive director Jim McCarvill and Board Chairman Bernie Buonanno Jr., who publicly called for the investigation after accusations surfaced that Mattiello only ordered the audit to retaliate over his friend’s personnel problems. (Mattiello has denied the accusation.)
“I haven’t heard anything about it,” Buonanno said Friday.
In addition, it’s not clear that the “passage of time” cited by the speaker would indicate the probe has finished, since there are no time limits on a grand jury investigation.
While grand juries – comprising between 13 to 23 members – typically convene for six-month periods, nothing prevents one grand jury from passing an investigation onto the next. And the coronavirus pandemic forced a halt in all grand jury proceedings earlier this year, slowing down the work of the attorney general’s office.
However, if the investigation is ongoing, it’s highly unlikely any major developments would happen before Nov. 3.
Following the controversy over then-FBI Director James Comey’s letter related to Hillary Clinton’s emails just before the 2016 presidential election, Neronha said he believes in trying to avoid having any investigations interfere with a looming election.
“In my mind I have a 90-day window,” Neronha said during a 2017 taping of Newsmakers. “If I can’t pull the trigger 90 days before that election, we can’t pull it, because we don’t want to influence the election.”
Mattiello, a Democrat, is 36 days away from facing Republican challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung in his bid for re-election in House District 15.
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