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Police interview Cumberland mayor as probe of McKee’s chief of staff begins

Target 12

CUMBERLAND, R.I. (WPRI) — Law enforcement officials interviewed Cumberland Mayor Jeff Mutter on Thursday as they began an investigation into Gov. Dan McKee’s chief of staff, Tony Silva, indicating the scope of the probe will extend beyond the state level.

Target 12 has learned Mutter met at Town Hall with both the R.I. State Police and Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office Thursday afternoon. The mayor declined to detail specifics, citing the ongoing investigation, but said the discussion focused on a March 31 meeting he had with Silva.

“It was about the meeting with Tony and all the other relevant information with 45 Canning Street,” Mutter said.

Silva, a long-time top aide to McKee, had been trying for years to build a home on a controversial piece of wetlands at 45 Canning St. in Cumberland. Silva claims he gave up any financial interest in the project in April 2020, yet a series of emails and text messages obtained by Target 12 show he continued to lobby the town and Mutter.

On March 31, the same month he joined the governor’s office, Silva requested an impromptu meeting with Mutter, who said later he thought it would be about something related to their official roles. Instead, Mutter has said, Silva asked him to drop the town’s objection to a R.I. Department of Environmental management permit request that would allow the Silva family to develop the wetlands property.

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

Silva has confirmed they talked about the Canning Street property, but he has rejected the mayor’s characterization of how it was discussed.

“Let me make it perfectly clear to you,” Silva said Wednesday. “I didn’t intervene in anything.”

McKee initially offered staunch support for Silva, his longtime friend and adviser, but on Wednesday he asked Neronha to conduct an independent investigation into the Canning Street matter. The governor indicated the request was for an investigation into the DEM wetlands application, which he had already looked into himself, concluding Silva had exerted no “undue influence.”

But the interview with Mutter on Thursday indicates investigators are also interested in Silva’s meeting with the mayor to discuss the municipal-level decisions around the property.

McKee has dismissed any suggestion that the March 31 meeting was improper.

“It’s not unusual for a mayor to meet with people who are looking to do development or business interest in any community,” McKee said, indicating his own experience as Cumberland mayor for 12 years. “As mayor, I had those meetings all the time.”

McKee told reporters Thursday he still believes Silva’s version of events, and that he trusts the attorney general’s investigation will show Silva didn’t do anything wrong. But he argued the investigation was necessary because he wants the public to have a “good feeling that we’re doing everything that we can to let them know what’s happening.”

“There were some people questioning whether or not I could actually get good information and provide the facts back to the people of the state of Rhode Island,” McKee explained. “So, bringing the attorney general in right now is another opinion that’s independent of our office.”

Separately on Thursday, Silva resigned from a part-time job he held as Cumberland’s emergency management deputy director. Silva held the $7,500-a-year position while also serving in his state job, but he’s decided to give it up amid mounting scrutiny surrounding his side jobs.

“As you know, last March I transitioned into a new career position that occupies a significant amount of my time,” Silva wrote in his resignation letter submitted Thursday. “It is with regret and a heavy heart that I leave a position that I have enjoyed so much for so long.”

The controversy surrounding Silva has dominated headlines over the past week. Asked about how the attention on his chief of staff is affecting his administration, McKee said Thursday it concerns him.

“We’ll be talking about those things in terms of the relationship that this shadow puts on our office,” he said. “I’m concerned about doing the people’s business right now.”

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

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.

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

An earlier version of this story said Cumberland’s mayor spoke with investigators by phone; they met in person.

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

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