PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee on Wednesday asked Attorney General Peter Neronha to conduct an independent investigation into the actions of his chief of staff, Tony Silva, in connection with a controversial wetlands property in Cumberland.
“The governor requested the investigation out of an abundance of caution to provide full transparency and reassurance to the public and to ensure all information related to the application is brought forward,” McKee’s office said in a statement.
Blake Collins, a spokesperson for Neronha, said the attorney general spoke to both McKee and R.I. State Police Col. James Manni on Wednesday morning. McKee and Neronha are both Democrats.
“This office and the Rhode Island State Police are initiating an investigation of the matter of Tony Silva and the proposed development in Cumberland,” Collins said in a statement. “There are no limits to the scope of the investigation and the scope of any investigation by this office is determined by the attorney general.” He added, “We have no additional comment at this time.”
Manni confirmed Wednesday he has “been in communication with the attorney general” about Silva, but declined to say when his agency was first engaged or offer any further comment, citing the active investigation.
Silva is a longtime McKee adviser who has served as his chief of staff since McKee was first elected lieutenant governor in 2014. Both have deep roots in Cumberland, where McKee served as mayor and Silva served as police chief. Silva is still employed part-time in the town as its $7,500-a-year deputy director of emergency management.
Silva will not take a leave of absence and for now plans to stay on as chief of staff while the investigation is ongoing, McKee spokesperson Matt Sheaff said.
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The announcement comes amid mounting controversy over the efforts by Silva and his family to build a house on a property at 45 Canning St. in Cumberland. Target 12 first reported Monday that newly released text and email messages show Silva continued lobbying Cumberland Mayor Jeff Mutter over the issue long after he has publicly said he transferred his financial interest in the land to his son.
On Wednesday, Mutter said he welcomed the investigation.
“When someone asks me a question, I tell them what I know,” Mutter told Target 12. “Whether that’s you, or that’s the attorney general, or whoever that is. That’s what I do and that’s what I’ll do.”
Neighbors and town officials have been fighting the proposed Canning Street development for years, citing the fact that the property is 93% wetlands and expressing concern it could exacerbate local flooding issues. The R.I. Department of Environmental Management rejected an initial application to develop the land in 2019, but reversed its decision this year and gave it the green light.
“I think it’s important that we know that there wasn’t involvement,” Mutter said Wednesday. “I sent some communication to DEM and didn’t even get a response back, so obviously it’s in everyone’s best interest to know if there was interference at that level.”
The Silva family announced earlier this month they would abandon their plans and instead donate the Canning Street land to the town.
McKee insisted Tuesday that Silva had exercised “no undue influence” at the state level to clear the path for the development, while also saying he had no problem with his chief of staff’s interventions at Town Hall. Mutter has confirmed he called McKee to express concern about the March 31 meeting with Silva, but the governor repeatedly refused to characterize their conversation when pressed about it Tuesday.
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The R.I. Republican Party said it has filed an Ethics Commission complaint against Silva for failing to disclose his financial interest in the Canning Street property on his annual disclosure form, though Silva told Target 12 he did not believe it was necessary because he had yet to close on the purchase. The GOP also called on the attorney general to investigate.
Silva’s current annual salary in the governor’s office is $196,792. He separately receives a $21,000 annual pension from Lincoln, where he served as a police officer, along with his $7,500 EMA stipend in Cumberland. A Community College of Rhode Island spokesperson said Silva was also paid $3,189 to teach a course last spring at CCRI, where he has been adjunct professor since 2005. He is not currently scheduled to teach there this fall, nor at Roger Williams University, where he is also an adjunct.
Silva is not the only senior official in the McKee administration who is currently under investigation. The governor has also asked the state police to look into whether Bud Craddock, director of the R.I. Division of Motor Vehicles, had any knowledge or involvement in a sex-for-pay operation busted at one of his rental properties in June. The conclusion of that investigation has not been announced.
As it happens, Craddock succeeded Tony Silva as head of the DMV in 2015.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) 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
Tolly Taylor contributed to this report.