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RI GOP files ethics complaint against McKee chief of staff, calls for investigation

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Republican Party has filed a complaint against Gov. Dan McKee’s chief of staff, Tony Silva, claiming Silva violated the state’s ethics code when he failed to disclose his financial interest in a controversial wetlands property in Cumberland.

The state GOP is filing the complaint with the R.I. Ethics Commission, accusing the governor’s top aide of not disclosing his financial ties to the 45 Canning St. property between 2017 and 2020. The complaint comes one day after Target 12 first reported Silva directly intervened with the Cumberland mayor as recently as March in an effort to get the wetlands property developed, long after he claimed he no longer had a financial interest in the lot.

“Although Mr. Silva admits he had a financial interest in the 45 Canning Street [lot] from 2017 through 2020, in financial disclosure reports for that time period, Mr. Silva never disclosed he had a financial interest in 45 Canning Street property,” Republican leaders wrote in a news release.

The group pointed to a state law that requires certain public officials to regularly disclose their financial activities, including “a listing of all real property in which a financial interest was held.”

Silva told Target 12 he was under the impression he did not need to list 45 Canning St. on his ethics form because he only had an option to buy the property if development was approved, as opposed to a final closed sale.

“If it turns out that a purchase and sales agreement constitutes a financial interest I will do what is required to amend the disclosures,” Silva wrote in an email. “I welcome a review by the Ethics Commission.”

At his weekly news conference, McKee offered no criticism of Silva and indicated he retains full confidence in him as chief of staff. He said he had reached out to the acting director of the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, Terry Gray, and that Gray told him Silva had exercised “no undue influence” at the state level.

The governor also dismissed the idea that Silva shouldn’t have lobbied Cumberland’s mayor in light of his position as chief of staff. “I don’t think it’s inappropriate to have a discussion with a local mayor,” McKee said.

“I don’t have any concern with that,” he said. “I took meetings as a mayor with people all the time. … That conversation is natural, and a mayor will take those calls.”

McKee confirmed that Mutter had called him after Target 12’s initial report on the land deal aired earlier this month, but the governor repeatedly refused to characterize their conversation or to answer whether Mutter had raised concerns about Silva’s actions.

“I get phone calls all the time from people,” McKee said, saying Mutter “gave me information that he thought he should share.” The governor added that he asked how his own office could join the mayor’s efforts to force a public hearing on the Canning Street development.

Pressed on whether Mutter had expressed concern to him about what Silva had said in their March 31 meeting, McKee replied, “You’ve got to ask the mayor about what ‘concerned’ means.”

Reached after McKee’s news conference, Mutter told Target 12: “I expressed concern to the governor about the meeting.”

(On a separate issue, McKee said he was aware that Silva — who earns $196,792 as chief of staff — has simultaneously held a $7,500-a-year part-time job as Cumberland’s deputy director of emergency management, but said he did not know whether Silva still held the position now; Mutter said Monday that Silva does.)

Silva had been trying to develop the Canning Street property since 2017 when he received an option to buy it if regulatory permits for development were obtained. The Department of Environmental Management initially rejected an application in 2019, but reversed that decision this year. Development of the wetlands property has been opposed by neighbors and the town for years.

Silva claims he transferred his financial interest in the property to his son, Ross Silva, in April 2020, saying he has documentation to prove it, although he hasn’t yet provided it.

As the top aide to McKee since the start of 2015, Silva is required to annually disclose his financial interests in various properties and business ventures. A Target 12 review of Silva’s disclosure forms between 2017 and 2020 shows no mention of the property at 45 Canning St. (In 2019, he did list a financial interest in a property on the same road, at 114 Canning St.)

In addition to the ethics complaint, the GOP is calling on R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha to investigate Silva’s decision to try and influence development of the property. New documents released under an Access to Public Records Act request show Silva asked to meet with with Cumberland officials regarding the project last September, months after he supposedly gave up any financial interest in it.

This past March, the month Silva became chief of staff in the governor’s office, he asked Mutter for an unscheduled meeting, and the mayor claims Silva asked him not to oppose the Canning Street development.

In a text to the mayor afterward, 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.”

Silva’s son bought the property in July, which he has since said he will donate to the town. The governor’s chief of staff nonetheless has denied he tried to influence the deal in any way.

“I want to emphasize that at no time did I intervene on my behalf or anyone else regarding the property,” Silva wrote Monday to Target 12. “NEVER EVER.”

Silva has not responded to multiple questions about whether he thought it was appropriate to be discussing the deal with local decisionmakers given his position of power with the state. The state’s GOP said the whole issue is reason enough for an outside review.

“We have no confidence that weak Governor McKee, who himself was previously fined by the Ethics Commission, would undertake a thorough investigation of his chief staff’s dubious activities,” the party wrote. “Therefore, we ask the attorney general to investigate the Cumberland land deal orchestrated by Mr. Silva.”

Beyond the Republican Party, the Canning Street controversy has also drawn criticism from McKee’s political opponents within his own party. R.I. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, a Democrat who has announced she’s running against McKee in next year’s primary, took to Twitter to question McKee’s involvement.

“What did Governor McKee know about this and when did he know it?” she wrote. “It is unacceptable for local government to be pressured by those in power for private gain.”

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

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

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