PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s top Republican on Thursday questioned whether House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello engaged in retaliation by having a member of his inner circle order an audit of the R.I. Convention Center after the speaker’s friend was the focus of a personnel investigation there.
R.I. Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki was responding to a Target 12 investigation that aired Wednesday night, revealing that the Mattiello-controlled Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS) had ordered the unusual audit amid an ongoing internal dispute involving James Demers, a Mattiello friend who is the Convention Center’s director of security.
Demers was eventually placed on administrative leave, along with another top official there.
“An audit of the Convention Center Authority has been long overdue. The Convention Center Authority has cost Rhode Island taxpayers millions every year for years,” Cienki said in a statement. But, she continued, “It is suspicious, that only after a donor and friend of the speaker gets into trouble at his job at the Convention Center Authority is an audit ordered by the speaker.”
JCLS administers the General Assembly’s $46 million annual budget. Its executive director is former state Rep. Frank Montanaro Jr., a key member of Mattiello’s inner circle, and Auditor General Dennis Hoyle copied Montanaro on the letter informing Convention Center leaders that the JCLS had directed him to audit the agency.
Hoyle told Target 12 he could find no record of conducting a performance audit of any other quasi-public agency within the last decade.
While Senate President Dominick Ruggerio is technically vice chairman of JCLS, in practice the five-member committee’s powers are exercised by the speaker and his aides; Ruggerio’s spokesperson confirmed the Senate president was not consulted about the audit.
JCLS’s other members are House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi, House Minority Leader Blake Filippi and Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere. Filippi confirmed Thursday he was not consulted about the audit, either.
“The JCLS has an obligation to meet and determine exactly why an audit was ordered of the Convention Center after Mr. Demers got in trouble at his job,” Cienki said. “The public deserves to know if government resources are being used by Speaker Mattiello to satisfy a petty personal grudge. If the JCLS won’t meet and explain what is going on, then perhaps the attorney general should investigate.”
Mattiello’s spokesperson, Larry Berman, pushed back at Cienki by pointing out that House Republicans, notably former Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, have been calling for better oversight of the Convention Center’s finances for years. He sent Target 12 multiple press releases and news reports in which Morgan laid out her criticisms.
“Upon receiving some new information and recalling all of these press releases from the Republican Party, it was determined an audit was appropriate,” Berman said in an email.
Morgan herself offered measured support for House Democratic leadership on social media, tweeting, “I can’t speak to personnel issues. But an audit of the Convention Center is well overdue. In 2015, the Republican Policy Group found many reasons taxpayers should be alarmed. Let’s hope the audit is authentic and actions will be taken to make [the Convention Center Authority] more economically beneficial.”
A spokesperson for Gov. Gina Raimondo said the Convention Center made the governor’s office aware of the audit, but declined to comment further.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook