WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Superior Court Judge Daniel Procaccini on Wednesday found Jeffrey Britt not guilty of money laundering or violating campaign finance laws.
The Wednesday decision capped off the high-profile trial tied to outgoing House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s 2016 re-election campaign, when Britt worked for the Cranston Democrat as a political adviser.
The weeklong trial in October peeled back the curtain on the inner workings of Mattiello’s campaign when he narrowly defeated GOP rival Steve Frias by just 85 votes.
Britt, who was allowed to join the hearing remotely from his home in Florida, was accused of illegally paying for a pro-Mattiello campaign mailer from Frias’s one-time Republican opponent Shawna Lawton by funneling money through two other people.
Britt was charged with one felony count of money laundering and one misdemeanor charge of making a prohibited campaign contribution. In his decision, Procaccini sharply criticized the money laundering statute, calling it “constitutionally deficient.”
He also decided state prosecutors did not sufficiently prove Britt was guilty of either charge beyond a reasonable doubt, adding they fell “woefully short” on the money laundering offense. He granted a defense motion to dismiss the money laundering charge, which was filed just before the trial started.
“This court finds the Rhode Island money laundering statute is void for vagueness,” Procaccini said, adding that it violates the due process guarantee that the statute must provide a “person of ordinary intelligence” a reasonable opportunity to know what’s prohibited.
Procaccini also said “the testimony of certain critical witnesses was not credible or trustworthy,” though he did not detail which ones.
The trial was novel in the sense that there had never been a money laundering trial in the R.I. Superior Court, according to a search of court records. The 1991 law had been charged 19 different times since 1992, but they were all either dismissed or ended in plea deals.
Britt’s lawyer, former Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente, successfully argued the facts of the case did not warrant a felony charge, but rather a misdemeanor campaign finance violation.
Following the decision, Corrente reiterated the point, telling reporters outside the courtroom Britt was over-prosecuted.
“Jeff Britt never should have been charged in the first place and the evidence wasn’t there to convict him,” Corrente said. “This case has not only cost him a lot of time and money. It’s sort of put his career on hold for a full year and I’m hopeful with this decision, finally, of not guilty on both counts he’s able to get back in the game and resume his career.”
The trial included the testimony of 10 witnesses, seven called by state prosecutors and three by the defense, including Mattiello himself. The trial happened just weeks before the Nov. 3 election, when the speaker was defeated by GOP challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung.
Mattiello through his campaign spokesperson Patti Doyle declined to comment on the decision.
Another witness in the case, Mattiello’s chief of staff Leo Skenyon, was highlighted in Procaccini’s written decision. The judge pointed out that Skenyon — who ran Mattiello’s campaign, making him Britt’s boss at the time — didn’t receive much focus from investigators.
“This court notes with interest the individual with overall responsibility from the Mattiello campaign, Skenyon, was not contacted by the [R.I. Board of Elections] during its investigation and was not contacted to testify before the grand jury convened by the [attorney general],” Procaccini wrote.
R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha issued a statement after the verdict saying he respected the judge’s decision. But he stood by his decision to bring the case, saying, “the public has a right to know who really is providing support to candidates for public office.”
“Notwithstanding the outcome in this case, this office will continue to aggressively fight for transparency and integrity in our elections,” Neronha said in a statement. “The evidence introduced at trial plainly demonstrated just how critical that fight is. Politics doesn’t need to be a dirty business. It doesn’t need to involve soliciting fake donors to create an illusion of an independent endorsement. It doesn’t need to involve complex schemes designed to deceive voters.”
Frias, who lost to Mattiello in 2016 and again in 2018, issued a statement after the decision thanking Neronha for bringing the case, which he said, “showed the people the kind of dirty campaign run by Rhode Island’s most powerful politician.”
“Although the judge was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Britt had committed a crime, in a sense, justice had already been served,” Frias said in a statement. “The people of my community rendered their own verdict in November by removing from office the man ultimately responsible for all of Mr. Britt’s sleazy actions, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.”
This is a breaking news story and will be updated.
Steph Machado contributed to this report.