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Smiley returns some campaign donations tied to state contractors, defends others

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Brett Smiley is returning more than $1,000 in campaign donations after Target 12 identified multiple donors who are executives at organizations that have received millions of dollars through contracts with the state, where he currently serves as director of administration. 

Smiley, a Democrat who is planning a 2022 run for Providence mayor, started fundraising in October after the R.I. Ethics Commission advised him that he could collect certain donations at the same time he served at the helm of the R.I. Department of Administration, which has powerful sway over state spending. 

In a letter requesting an opinion from the Ethics Commission, Smiley pledged he would not solicit or accept campaign contributions from any state employees or state vendors. The pledge was later memorialized in a commission advisory opinion.

A Target 12 review of the 249 individual donations totaling $167,410 that were made to Smiley’s campaign between then and Dec. 31, however, revealed at least a dozen contributions came from executives at organizations that have gotten millions through state contracts or COVID-19 relief funds distributed by the Department of Administration. 

Asked about the donations Monday night, Smiley said he would refund at least two of the contributions identified by Target 12.

“We voluntarily established strict contribution standards – approved by the Rhode Island Ethics Commission – to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and we put processes in place to ensure all contributions meet these standards,” Smiley said in a statement. “Any contribution we identify that does not meet these standards will be promptly returned.”

One of the donations Smiley gave back was returned to Colin Kane, founding partner of Peregrine Group LLC, which received $279,797 from the Department of Administration for its work on alternative hospital sites during the pandemic. Kane confirmed Tuesday the money was returned, and he told Target 12 that Smiley had called him a few weeks ago to solicit the donation. 

“I’ve known Brett since before he was in politics,” Kane said, adding that his firm’s work with the state didn’t even occur to him when Smiley asked for the donation. “I didn’t think about it at all.” 

Smiley also returned a $1,000 donation to Jonathan Savage, partner of the law firm Shechtman, Halperin and Savage LLP, who works on multiple state contracts. Savage disclosed the contribution in a vendor affidavit. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

While Smiley conceded that he needed to return some of the money, he defended contributions from other top executives at state vendors, arguing his pledge applied only to the owners of firms doing business with the state, or those who are authorized to enter into contracts on their behalf.

For example, he stood by a $1,000 campaign contribution from Anthony Dematteo, vice president of business development at Dimeo Construction Company, who is listed as part of leadership on the company’s website.

In April, the R.I. State Properties Committee – a division of Smiley’s department – picked Dimeo through an expedited bid process to build the state’s field hospitals. The company has received at least $18.8 million for the work, according to the state’s COVID-19 spending reports.

Smiley said Dematteo doesn’t play any part in the company’s effort to secure state contracts.

“I actually checked with Dimeo,” Smiley said about the Dematteo contribution. “He’s not an owner, he’s an employee of the company; he has no ownership stake.”

Dematteo did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. 

Similarly, Smiley defended donations he received from leadership at the R.I. Convention Center, a quasi-public agency that’s received millions of dollars from the federal CARES Act relief money. The funding — approved through the Department of Administration — went toward transforming the facility into one of the state’s field hospitals. (The construction was done by Dimeo.)

Smiley accepted a $500 donation from Larry Lepore, the general manager of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and the Convention Center, along with a separate $500 donation from Bernie Buonanno Jr., who serves as chairman of the R.I. Convention Center Authority that oversees the complex.

Asked about Lepore’s contribution, Smiley defended the donation, pointing out that the general manager technically works for the contracting company ASM Global, which manages the staff at the Convention Center. 

“He’s just an employee, he’s not an owner,” Smiley said. 

Lepore likewise defended the donation and he echoed Smiley’s point, saying he works for ASM, not directly for the Convention Center Authority. When asked why he gave to Smiley’s campaign, Lepore said, “Because I think he would make a great mayor.” 

The examples go on. Smiley received $1,000 from the head of AAA Northeast, which has received $11,375 in state work this fiscal year, and $500 from a partner at Burns & Levinson LLP, which has done about $6,000 of state work. 

M. Teresa Paiva Weed, the former president of the Rhode Island Senate who now leads the Rhode Island Hospital Association, donated $300 to Smiley’s campaign. Her advocacy group has received $333,286 from Rhode Island this fiscal year, according to the state’s spending portal, and the hospitals themselves have received tens of millions of dollars in support.

Another $1,000 came from the owner of The Foundry, which has received $1.6 million this fiscal year from the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, as the agency is headquartered in one of the company’s buildings in Providence. 

Many of other Smiley donors currently lead government relations firms, law offices and public relations companies that directly lobby for, or represent, clients have conducted business with the state over the years. Target 12 shared all of the relevant examples with Smiley, who said he would look into them further. 

It wasn’t immediately clear whether his solicitation for donations from certain individuals would violate the Ethics Commission advisory opinion. The commission’s executive director, Jason Gramitt, declined to comment on Target 12’s initial findings. 

But Smiley’s quarterly report caught the attention of Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John Marion, who said he sees a discrepancy between the director’s October pledge and the names in his report, arguing that “it appears he broke that pledge just months later.”

“As someone who made a living as a campaign finance compliance consultant, and who publicly pledged not to take these contributions, it’s an inauspicious start to his campaign for mayor of Providence,” Marion said.

Serving as director of administration during the pandemic “is an awfully important job,” Marion added. “And having the side hustle of running for mayor of the capital city just might not be sustainable.”

The donations are already emboldening Smiley’s potential rivals, who criticized his decision to raise money at the same time he holds such an influential state job — even though he received clearance for the Ethics Commission.

“Brett Smiley is the state’s top administrator,” said Gonzalo Cuervo, a Democrat who is planning to run for mayor in 2022. “The only person that has more authority than he does in the executive branch is the governor. To remain in that position while you’re soliciting money from people who do business with the state is not a good look.” 

Unlike Smiley, Cuervo decided to leave his state job — as R.I. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s chief of staff — when he decided to run for mayor. “I just felt it was the right thing to do,” he said.

“It’s a high level job,” Cuervo said. “When you’re running for office, I think you have to set an example.” 

Other potential candidates mulling a run for mayor include Providence City Council President Sabina Matos and Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, both Democrats.

Smiley — who hasn’t officially announced he’s running for mayor — has clearly indicated that’s where he’s heading. The director said as much when he sought the Ethics Commission advisory opinion, and his aggressive first quarter of fundraising has sent a message to would-be opponents that he plans to enter the race with a well-stocked war chest. 

Smiley’s current job keeps him in the public eye, especially when he periodically appears during highly-watched televised COVID-19 media briefings. Asked if and when he plans to leave his state position, he said that’s partly up to his incoming boss, Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, who is expected to become governor within days. (Gov. Gina Raimondo is set to leave to become U.S. commerce secretary.) 

“I’m invested in my work and I want to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks,” Smiley said, indicating he plans to leave this year but has not set a firm date. “I’ve told Lt. Gov. McKee that I’m interested in being as helpful as possible to ensure a smooth transition and he appreciated that. So I’m waiting on some feedback from him on what his plans are for the position and for his cabinet.”

For as long as he stays in one of the state’s top job, however, Smiley will continue to have to walk a fine line between raising campaign funds and staying true to his pledge that doing so will not result in even the appearance of impropriety — something one member of the Ethics Commission, Douglas Bennett, foresaw last October during Smiley’s advisory hearing.

“Proceed with caution,” Bennett said.

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

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook

Tim White and Ted Nesi contributed to this report.

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

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