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South Kingstown mailer investigation focuses on well-known political consultant

Target 12

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — South Kingstown is calling on a judge to compel a prominent Democratic campaign strategist to explain his involvement in a recent political mailer that went out to children, Target 12 has learned.

The town last week filed a petition in Washington County Superior Court, requesting that the court enforce a recent subpoena for Brad Dufault of Checkmate Consulting Group to testify before the Town Council.

The town alleges Dufault — on behalf of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO — is responsible for circulating a highly controversial mailer in support of a school bond referendum that went out to students younger than 18 years old.

The mailer evoked outrage within the community and the Town Council has since launched an investigation into how the union obtained the names and mailing addresses of the students. According to legal documents, Rhode Island AFL-CIO president George Nee told investigators he was contacted by Dufault, “who asked him if the AFL-CIO would be interested in circulating a mailer in support of the school bond referendum.”

“Mr. Nee further avers in his response letter that, after the AFL-CIO approved a draft of the mailer, Mr. Dufault was responsible for the logistics for having the mailer circulated and did not share the list of recipients with Mr. Nee or the AFL-CIO,” the town’s attorney, Michael Ursillo, wrote in the complaint.

The political mailer was sent to students

The town alleges Dufault subsequently refused to comply with a subpoena calling on him to appear virtually before the Town Council on May 24.

“Ultimately, the town determined that Brad Dufault of Checkmate Consulting LLC was responsible for circulating the mailer and, therefore, has information about how the student names and addressed were released,” Ursillo wrote in a memo supporting the complaint. “Mr. Dufault is refusing to provide that information to the town.”

Dufault, who did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment, has worked on campaigns with union groups and elected officials for several years. And it’s not the first time he’s been embroiled in controversy over a political mailer.

While Dufault has almost exclusively worked with Democratic candidates and aligned groups over the years, he become well-known for his work with a Republican during former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s re-election effort in 2016.

At the time, Dufault helped to design a controversial mailer purportedly sent out by Shawna Lawton, an unsuccessful Republican challenger to Mattiello, who went on to endorse the Democratic speaker over GOP rival Steve Frias. The mailer later became the focus of a political scandal that resulted in one of Mattiello’s aides, Jeff Britt, being charged with money laundering. A judge eventually acquitted Britt of all charges after a trial in which Dufault was called as one of the witnesses.

This time, the controversial mailers were sent out in support of an $85 million school infrastructure bond and addressed directly to students in South Kingstown, a town of 30,000. Parents and other community members were quick to call the political maneuvering inappropriate, and questions began to swirl around how the union received contact information for underage children.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected the referendum, with 5,261 voting no and 1,986 voting yes.

In the complaint, Ursillo said legal counsel determined the original information “may have been released by the School Department,” but they could not figure out how it became public. The School Department also couldn’t find any records of the AFL-CIO making a request for student names and addresses, which Ursillo claims makes Dufault’s testimony all the more critical to their investigation.

“The subpoena served on Mr. Dufault is the key to this investigation, as he is the only person (of whom the Town is aware) who has direct knowledge of how the student privacy breach associated with the AFL-CIO mailer occurred,” Ursillo wrote.

In April, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island sent a letter to South Kingstown Superintendent Linda Savastano highlighting “apparent inconsistency in the district’s policies governing the release of student information.”

The advocacy group pointed to one district policy in alignment with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which allows school districts to disclose basic student directory information, such as names and addresses, without parents’ consent — unless they specifically opt out.

But the group pointed to a second district policy that contradicted the first: “If a non-school official seeks access to any student records, the district shall first obtain consent from a parent or guidance of the student prior to disclosure of any student record.” Those records include addresses, telephone number and email, according to the policy.

“I hope you can understand that the manner in which these policies are written provides parents or guardians with contradictory information as it pertains to student directory information and its release,” wrote Megan Khatchadourian, assistant to the ACLU Rhode Island director, in the letter.

“It is thus quite confusing to some parents – especially with the receipt of this current mailer – to determine if the district was complying with its policies when it presumably provided directory information to the mailer’s source,” Khatchadourian added, recommending that the two policies be harmonized.

Target 12 contacted the Town Council on Tuesday and Ursillo said town officials will not comment on the complaint until after a hearing is held.

As of Tuesday morning, a hearing had not yet been scheduled, according to court documents.

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

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