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McKee chief of staff tried to influence controversial wetlands deal, texts show

Target 12

CUMBERLAND, R.I. (WPRI) — Newly released documents show the governor’s top aide, Tony Silva, intervened directly with the Cumberland mayor earlier this year in an effort to get a controversial wetlands property developed, long after Silva has claimed he no longer had a financial interest in the lot.

Silva, a longtime adviser to Gov. Dan McKee who serves as his chief of staff, had been trying to develop the 5,600-square-foot lot at 45 Canning St. since 2017. The lot is 93% wetlands, and neighbors as well as town officials have opposed development out of fears it would worsen local flooding problems.

The R.I. Department of Environmental Management denied an application to develop the parcel in 2019, but reversed its decision on June 3 despite continuing local opposition, citing revisions to the plan.

Less than 24 hours after Target 12 aired an investigation about the deal earlier this month, the Silva family announced they would abandon their plans and instead donate the property to the town. McKee and Silva have both denied any political pressure was brought to bear to clear the path for development.

Yet the new documents — released under an Access to Public Records Act request — confirm Silva asked Cumberland Mayor Jeff Mutter for a meeting on March 31, the same month that Silva had become chief of staff in the governor’s office, and Mutter says the topic was Canning Street.

“Good morning Mayor!” Silva wrote to Mutter in a March 31 text message included in the documents. “Would you have 15 minutes for me this morning I can grab a coffee with you I will be leaving my home in about five minutes didn’t know if far [sic] if you had a opportunity I can meet you.”

During that meeting, held at Phantom Farms in Cumberland, Silva tried to convince the mayor not to oppose the Canning Street development, according to Mutter.

Mutter told Target 12 he was not aware when he received the text that the meeting with the governor’s chief of staff would be about the Canning Street land.

“It was not a scheduled meeting,” Mutter said. “I didn’t know that’s what we’d discuss when I got there.”

In an email to Target 12 on Monday, Silva confirmed the meeting but said the two had “discussed many issues including the Canning Street lot.” He noted he continues to be involved in town affairs, working as its deputy director of emergency management, a part-time position that Mutter said pays $7,500 a year.

“I wanted the Mayor to understand my original intent for purchasing the lot and I did not advocate for any favorable outcome,” Silva wrote. “I wanted to assure Jeff that my original intent was to provide a solution for storm water runoff on the street that had been a source of flooding in the neighborhood.”

Mutter disputed that the March 31 meeting had been about more than Canning Street.

“I want to be clear,” the mayor told Target 12. “I did meet with Mr. Silva on a few occasions in his role with emergency management here in town. The meeting of March 31, 2021, was not one of those occasions.”

“If not entirely about Canning Street and the town’s objection it was the point of the conversation and dominated the conversation,” Mutter said.

McKee and Silva are both residents of Cumberland, where the governor previously served as mayor. Silva was the town’s chief of police for a decade and has been McKee’s chief of staff since McKee was first elected lieutenant governor in 2014.

The new documents also raised questions about Silva’s prior statements about when he gave up his interest in the land. In a statement on Aug. 8 for Target 12’s initial report, Silva had distanced himself from the transaction.

“[W]e assigned the purchase and sales agreement for the Canning Street property to our son, Ross Silva, in April of 2020 so he could build a home on the site,” Silva wrote, referring to himself and his wife. “As of April 2020, my wife and I have had no financial interest in the Canning Street property.”

“In July 2021 my son purchased the property,” he added. “I had no financial interest in this transaction or ownership interest in this property. Nor did I advocate for any outcome with DEM.”

Yet in a text message to Mutter following their meeting on March 31, Silva indicated he had spoken to his wife and they were “going to allow my son Ross” to buy the lot.

“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.”

On Monday, Silva said he had already transferred the purchase rights to the Canning Street property to his son by that point, but was sharing it with the mayor for the first time in the text message. He said he meant it would “make it easier” for the mayor because of Silva’s status as a former town police chief.

However, the March 31 meeting also wasn’t the first time Silva had sought to discuss the Canning Street property with Cumberland officials after transferring the purchase rights to his son the previous April.

A series of email messages in September 2020 involving the mayor, the town solicitor, the town planner and an attorney show a continuing effort to schedule a meeting to discuss the town’s opposition to developing Canning Street.

In a Sept. 29 message with the subject line “Canning Street matter,” the town solicitor wrote, “The Mayor would like to schedule a time to meet with you and Tony Silva.” A follow-up shows it was scheduled for the following week.

In his email Monday, Silva wrote, “My actions were always noble and in the best interests of the Canning Street neighborhood.”

“I want to emphasize that at no time did I intervene on my behalf or anyone else regarding the property,” he wrote. “NEVER EVER.”

Mutter told Target 12 that McKee himself had never contacted him personally regarding the land deal. But Mutter said he reached out to the governor following Target 12’s report earlier this month to discuss his past meetings with Silva.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.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

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

Tolly Taylor contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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