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RI GOP files ethics complaint against Smiley over campaign fundraising

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Republican Party has filed an ethics complaint against outgoing R.I. Department of Administration Director Brett Smiley, accusing him violating the state’s ethics code when he asked for campaign donations from at least one person doing business with the state.

Smiley, who is soon leaving his state job ahead of an expected run for Providence mayor, started fundraising for his campaign in the final quarter of 2020 after pledging to the R.I. Ethics Commission he wouldn’t raise funds from state vendors.

Earlier this month, after Smiley filed his quarterly campaign report, Target 12 identified the names of several donors whose companies are doing business with the state.

“Mr. Smiley is getting ready to resign to focus on the next chapter of his public service career,” Rhode Island GOP Chairwoman Sue Cienki said in a statement accompanying the complaint Thursday. “We believe that the next chapter in Smiley’s career shouldn’t begin until a sweeping investigation by the Ethics Commission into his unethical pay to play fundraising is conducted.”

Smiley, who has returned at least $5,000 in campaign donations identified by Target 12, fired back at the GOP, saying “my focus will always be working to find solutions to the real challenges facing the people of Providence and I will not be distracted by gutter partisan politics.”

“I am not surprised that the same Republican Party that supports false claims of election fraud and embraces conspiracy theories is now launching baseless partisan attacks against me,” Smiley said in a statement. “I have established high fundraising standards which were approved by the Ethics Commission, have returned any contributions that did not meet those standards and have suspended fundraising to focus on a smooth transition out of state government.”

The GOP complaint calls on the Ethics Commission to investigate all of Smiley’s campaign fundraising, but focuses primarily on one donation from Peregrine Group LLC founding partner Colin Kane, who told Target 12 last month that Smiley had called him to solicit a donation in December.

Kane’s development advisory firm has received nearly $280,000 in state contract money this fiscal year for its work on the state’s field hospitals, which were stood up to handle COVID-19 patient overflow.

Kane, who said he’s knows Smiley for years, previously told Target 12 he didn’t think anything unusual about the call, as it’s common for him to donate to campaigns. Smiley, who did not dispute Kane’s version of events when asked about it Thursday, has since returned the donation. Smiley has also said he would refund any other donation that doesn’t meet the standards he agreed to in his ethics pledge, which were memorialized in an Ethics Commission advisory opinion.

As of last week, Smiley had returned six donations.

The Rhode Island GOP, however, isn’t satisfied with his response, saying the Ethics Commission should investigate all of the donations he’s received from executives at various law firms, construction companies and at least one bank that are also doing business with the state.

“Smiley flagrantly failed to honor his promise not to solicit or accept donations from state vendors,” the GOP wrote in the complaint. “He solicited at least one donation from a state vendor and accepted a number of other donations from employees of state vendors.”

Smiley on Wednesday announced he would resign when Gov. Gina Raimondo departs to join the Biden administration as U.S. commerce secretary, saying he wants to “focus on the next chapter” of his public service career. While he hasn’t officially announced his candidacy, Smiley has indicated he’s mounting a campaign for Providence mayor in 2022.

Mayor Jorge Elorza is barred from running again due to term limits.

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

Steph Machado contributed to this story.

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

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