PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Board of Elections has referred all Sabina Matos nomination papers to the attorney general’s office for investigation, but she will still be on the ballot for the primary election in September.
The 5-to-1 vote in favor of sending the papers to R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha puts Rhode Island in unchartered waters politically, and it represents the latest blow to the Matos campaign.
The lieutenant governor has become embroiled in a scandal after election officials and Target 12 revealed several signatures were forged on nomination papers submitted on her behalf in multiple communities.
WATCH: Sabina Matos speaks amid signature scandal (Story continues below.)
Matos, who refused to speak publicly about the scandal for several days, held a news conference Friday evening, where she said she was “deeply sorry” for what has happened.
“Let’s be clear: My campaign is not under investigation,” Matos said. “A vendor hired by my campaign is under investigation.”
Matos expressed frustration with that vendor, Harmony Solutions, which she said “…betrayed the trust of [her] campaign and may have broken the law.”
“My campaign provided clear instructions to this vendor and everyone who collected signatures for us,” Matos said. “We were the victim of someone we trusted.”
“We had trust they would act with integrity,” she continued. “Anyone who has broken the law must be held accountable for their actions.”
Target 12 searched the R.I. Department of State’s online database for more information on Harmony Solutions. The search came up empty, as it doesn’t appear the vendor is registered to do business in Rhode Island.
When asked whether she planned on dropping out of the race, Matos became visibly emotional.
“I’m going to defend my name and my family’s name to the end,” Matos said. “I’m going to stay in this campaign because they need people like me to go to Washington and fight for every Rhode Islander.”
WATCH: Sabina Matos answers questions amid signature scandal (Story continues below.)
Matos is seeking to replace former Congressman David Cicilline to represent the 1st Congressional District. Despite the ongoing scandal, Matos’ name will still appear on the ballot, according to the R.I. Department of State.
Citing the forged signatures, Matos’ political rival Donald Carlson had filed an objection to her nomination papers earlier this week. But Carlson and his campaign manager failed to appear Friday to argue in favor of the challenge, so the Board of Elections dismissed the objection.
In a statement following the decision, Carlson said his challenge was submitted in an attempt to get the board to investigate the fraud allegations, and that it was never his intention for his campaign “to assume the role of prosecutor in this matter.”
“We have full faith in Attorney General Peter Nerohna to bring this matter to a just and satisfactory conclusion just as we requested in our submission to the Board,” he said.
The secretary of state is supposed to finalize ballots this weekend so they can be sent to military personnel and overseas. The primary election is scheduled for Sept. 5, with early voting slated to begin on Aug. 16.
Jamestown, Newport and East Providence election officials have already referred suspicious nomination papers to Neronha, who has taken the lead in the criminal investigation into the forged signatures.
Neronha has already said publicly he’s examining the issue in all 19 communities that make up the 1st Congressional District. The R.I. State Police confirmed Thursday the agency had also joined the probe.
When asked whether his office would review Matos’ nomination papers, Neronha said it’s “very unlikely.”
“This is not a lane I should be in,” Neronha replied. “I’m not really sure why they’re asking me to do this in the first place.”
“We will do a criminal investigation and we will see where that takes us,” he added. “That’s the scope of our authority and that is the authority we are going to exercise.”
Neronha said he’s not sure whether the criminal probe will be completed before the primary.
“We’re going to do it as fast as we can,” Neronha said. “But not on a deadline imposed by a Board of Elections entity that has no authority to impose that on me.”
“This is not a problem which I believe we should fix, nor do I believe this is a problem that they can’t fix,” he continued. “I think they need to look to themselves to fix the problem that’s before us from an electoral point of view.”
Each candidate must collect 500 valid signatures. State officials reported Matos collected more than 700, although it’s unclear how many could become invalid as a result of the investigation.
In response to Matos’ remarks, congressional candidate Aaron Regunberg said that, while he respects the lieutenant governor, he was disappointed to hear her spend much of the news conference “… discussing how this fraud has impacted her reputation and political ambitions, rather than taking ownership for how it has shaken public confidence in our electoral processes at a time when faith in elections has never been more urgent.”
“Rhode Islanders deserve better,” he said.
Anita Baffoni, Amanda Pitts, Kayla Fish and Matt Paddock contributed to this report.