PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The state’s attorney general and the R.I. State Police are investigating the circumstances surrounding how a controversial $5.2 million contract was awarded to a brand-new consulting firm, Target 12 has confirmed.
“The Department of Administration received a request for documents related to the ILO / WestEd procurement from the Rhode Island State Police,” Alana O’Hare, a spokesperson for Gov. Dan McKee, wrote in an email Friday.
“While this review is underway, the administration will have no further comment,” she added.
State Police Col. James Manni and a spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Neronha likewise confirmed the joint investigation.
“The Attorney General’s Office, in coordination with the R.I State Police, is conducting an investigation into this matter,” spokesperson Kristy dosReis said in a statement. “We have no further comment at this time.”
“I will confirm the Rhode Island State Police and the Rhode Island attorney general are conducting a joint investigation,” Manni told Target 12, declining further comment.
The investigation is focused in part on a lucrative state contract awarded to ILO Group LLC that was first reported in a Target 12 investigation last month.
The consulting firm incorporated two days after McKee took office in March, and by June it had secured a contract worth up to $5.2 million despite bidding millions more than a rival consultant, WestEd, that had more than two decades of experience in Rhode Island.
WestEd was also awarded a contract for about $940,000 to help colleges reopen schools safely amid the ongoing pandemic. McKee’s chief of staff, Tony Afonso, is directly managing both contracts and helped make the final determination on how much money each firm would receive, according to testimony provided to lawmakers this week.
ILO was founded by former employees of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit led by McKee’s ally and campaign donor, Mike Magee.
House and Senate oversight committees this week scrutinized how the deal came about, and the McKee administration was criticized by both Democrats and Republicans, who were concerned ILO might have had an inside track to secure the multimillion-dollar contract.
“Why would we pick someone who’s twice as expensive on an hourly basis?” asked Sen. James Seveney, D-Portsmouth, comparing ILO’s hourly rate to WestEd’s on Tuesday.
Republican lawmakers called on the attorney general to get involved, as House Minority Leader Blake Filippi argued the deal left the appearance of impropriety.
“Something untoward happened,” said Filippi during a House oversight hearing Wednesday.
He pointed to a state law enacted in 1989, during Gov. Ed DiPrete’s administration, that states “when for any reason collusion is suspected among any bidders or offerors, a written notice of the facts giving rise to the suspicion shall be transmitted to the attorney general.”
Rep. David Place, R-Burrillville, echoed the sentiment, saying the McKee administration would be wise to ask for a review.
“Even if it’s not impropriety, it definitely looks like it from the outside, and I would think you would want someone else to look at this right now,” he said. “Get the attorney general involved.”
Following the Wednesday hearing, Neronha would not say whether he would get involved. But he indicated to Target 12 any decision would be “based on an evaluation of the initial facts developed, and whether those facts indicate a possibility that criminal conduct has occurred.”
“Generally speaking, under long-standing state and federal case law, public corruption cases require proof that a public official solicited and/or received a bribe or extorted a member of the public to receive a private benefit,” Neronha said in a statement. “It is also well settled under federal and state law that undisclosed conflicts of interest may not form the basis of a public corruption prosecution.”
Contacted Friday night, Filippi said the contract raises a lot of red flags for him, saying he’s hopeful the attorney general will get to the bottom of what happened.
“I hope the truth is that nothing bad happened, and we move on and do the people’s business,” said Filippi, who is considering a run for governor. “But if something bad happened, there’s laws that have been broken, and no one’s above the law and there has to be consequences.”
Among the issues scrutinized by lawmakers was a Zoom meeting held by McKee on March 5, a day after ILO was incorporated and three days after he became governor. McKee held the meeting with Magee and DOA director Jim Thorsen, along with the state’s head of purchasing — Nancy McIntyre — and McKee’s then-chief of staff, Tony Silva.
The idea to issue a request for proposals (RFP) related to the work that ultimately went to ILO was spawned during the meeting, and ILO was a topic of discussion there, according to testimony. ILO’s co-founder and managing partner, Julia Rafal-Baer, was also invited to the meeting, but state officials say she didn’t attend. At the time, she worked for Magee as chief operating officer at Chiefs for Change.
“Mike Magee mentioned that she had left, or was leaving his firm,” Thorsen said of the Zoom meeting this week. “It was kind of confusing, to be honest with you, but she was forming some firm called ILO. That was the only mention.”
The lawmakers also criticized how cozy McKee’s senior staff became with the review team throughout the vetting process, which technically happened independently from the governor’s office. The four-person team included North Providence Mayor Charlie Lombardi, who is close to McKee.
State purchasing officials said the mayor’s involvement made sense because he currently serves as president of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns. But the officials who testified this week couldn’t recall an elected official ever previously participating on a state contract review team, which is designed to be technical in nature and separate from politics.
Emails obtained by Target 12 through a public records request also showed McKee’s chief of staff, Afonso, and the governor’s then-special adviser on education, Christine Lopes Metcalfe, were intimately involved in drafting the RFP. They also kept in close contact with the review team throughout the process, even though they weren’t technically part of the group.
One of the review team members, Thomas McCarthy, who is also the executive director of the R.I. Department of Health’s COVID-19 response team, indicated he had a discussion with Afonso after the review panel saw how much more ILO’s bid was compared with WestEd and other firms. Afonso at the time was serving as the governor’s senior deputy chief of staff.
“I spoke with Tony Afonso and he asked that we work with you to develop a rough sizing of what we think the engagement would require to deliver on the Governor’s intent,” McCarthy wrote in an email on April 29.
McCarthy also asked Lopes Metcalfe to work with another review team member to “help flesh out” what would be expected of the bidders.
“We want to make sure we’re fully aligned with the Governor’s expectations,” added McCarthy.
The latest probe marks the third time in seven months state investigators have looked into actions within the McKee administration. The attorney general is already investigating McKee’s former chief of staff, Silva, who resigned in August amid a scandal over a wetlands development. That investigation was requested by the governor.
The governor also directed the state police in June to investigate whether R.I. Division of Motor Vehicles administrator Walter “Bud” Craddock had any knowledge or involvement in an alleged sex-for-pay operation busted at one of his rental properties.
There has been no public resolution to either of those investigations.
Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, who is challenging McKee in next year’s Democratic primary, applauded Neronha for starting the investigation and said Rhode Islanders need the truth about what happened.
“That the state is undertaking a second investigation into the governor’s office in just a few months makes it clear: it’s time for new leadership in Rhode Island,” Muñoz said in a statement.
Ted Nesi (email@example.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 and Facebook
Steph Machado and Amanda Pitts contributed to this story.