PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — House Minority Leader Blake Filippi expressed outrage Tuesday that the House speaker’s aides failed to inform him they were moving records that belong to the legislative leaders committee at the center of a pending lawsuit.
It also emerged Tuesday night that no mold test has been conducted on the office at the center of the controversy, even though House leaders have cited a mold emergency as the reason the records suddenly needed to be moved.
As Target 12 reported Monday night, Rhode Island State Police investigators were dispatched to the State House after receiving a tip that documents were potentially being mishandled. Mattiello spokesperson Larry Berman has said a mold problem is what led to the emergency renovation of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS) office, and no documents were destroyed.
“I have come to learn that records and computer hard drives of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS) have been removed from the JCLS office in the Statehouse basement,” Filippi, R-New Shoreham, wrote in the letter to JCLS executive director Frank Montanaro Jr. “You have provided no notice of this unusual action to me, in my capacity as a member of JCLS, and no notice to other members of JCLS.”
(At least one other member of JCLS was notified: Montanaro told Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s chief of staff about the mold problem late last week, Senate spokesperson Greg Pare confirmed. “JCLS did not meet to discuss,” Pare added.)
“Even assuming you lawfully serve as the Executive Director of JCLS, the removal of JCLS records from their historical location without the permission of, or notice to, the JCLS membership, is highly improper,” wrote Filippi, who did not address Montanaro as “executive director” in the letter. “That you have done so in the face of pending litigation is beyond the pale.”
Filippi said he would seek an injunction in Superior Court if he does not hear from Montanaro by Wednesday at 10 a.m.
The letter marks a further escalation in Filippi’s battle with Mattiello over control of JCLS, a long-simmering issue at the General Assembly, where other legislative leaders have chafed at the speaker’s near-total control over the office and the Assembly’s roughly $46 million budget.
JCLS burst into the headlines earlier this month when Target 12 revealed that Mattiello had used it to order an unusual performance audit of the Rhode Island Convention Center, coinciding with a personnel investigation there into his friend James Demers, its director of security. Mattiello has insisted he was not trying to intimidate Convention Center leaders with the audit.
But the audit issue quickly took on a life of its own after Target 12 discovered it may have been ordered illegally, because state law requires any performance audit to be requested by a majority of JCLS members, which did not happen. Filippi filed suit Thursday against the speaker and Montanaro for allegedly usurping the power of JCLS, and they dropped the audit almost immediately.
Then on Friday, the Convention Center Authority’s board formally requested the Rhode Island State Police to conduct an investigation into whether the audit was ordered as retaliation over the Demers matter.
On Monday night, Target 12 saw a state police investigator spend at least an hour at the State House, first going inside and then walking out to inspect a dumpster with a flashlight. Berman, the House spokesperson, confirmed two members of the state police went to the State House on Tuesday to look at the JCLS offices.
Citing both his own lawsuit and the potential state police investigation, Filippi asked Montanaro to provide all JCLS members with a written log of the materials moved, their current locations, “and a list of all persons with access to these locations.” He also asked for a list of any documents destroyed by the reported mold problem, and a pledge on the proper future handling of them.
Earlier Tuesday, Mattiello spokesperson Larry Berman allowed Target 12 into the JCLS office to inspect the work being done to address the mold. Workers were tearing up carpeting, walls were covered in plastic sheets, and a large section of the flooring had been broken apart to expose what Berman said was the source of the mold — a broken steam pipe.
Berman also provided a one-page document laying out a timeline for the mold problem, dating the first signs of an issue back to Dec. 17.
Berman had said Monday night that an executive branch agency, the R.I. Department of Administration, “is supervising the project and is coordinating the effort” to clean up the JCLS office. However, department spokesperson Brenna McCabe said Tuesday her agency has had limited involvement in the project.
“On Friday, we were informed that JCLS was reaching out to a private vendor called Single Source to clean up their offices, citing water damage as the cause,” McCabe said in an email. “The decision to subsequently extract or remove any items was made by JCLS or its vendor.”
Single Source is a Warwick-based disaster recovery company.
“The only role of the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance was to identify the mechanical issue – three steam leaks in the office – and make repairs,” McCabe said. “Based on anecdotal information from JCLS, the division has ordered air quality testing.”
Later Tuesday, McCabe said the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance had reached out directly to Single Source “and learned they had not, in fact, ordered a mold test.” She said this afternoon the division requested that Single Source conduct such a test “out of an abundance of caution.”
Montanaro himself responded to Filippi in a letter Tuesday evening, telling him, “Please be advised that no documents were disposed of nor were any computer or computer hard-drives disposed of in the abatement process.”
“Thanks for the letter, Mr. Montanaro,” Filippi replied on Twitter. “Good to learn I’m the Secretary of JCLS. I guess that means I’m responsible for maintaining JCLS records?”
Also on Tuesday, top Senate Democrats introduced a bill they have offered perennially that would add a sixth member to the five-member JCLS, giving the House and Senate equal representation rather than the current structure, which gives the House three seats to the Senate’s two. Mattiello, like prior speakers, has always rejected that idea out of hand.
Appearing Tuesday on a taping of Dan Yorke State of Mind, House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Patricia Serpa acknowledged the current mood at the State House is “tense.”
“We’re all wondering,” she said. “I give everybody the benefit of the doubt, because I want people to give me the benefit of the doubt. I think that the timing is bad. But you said it yourself — if the records are sensitive, we’re going to shred them.”
(Serpa later wrote on Twitter, “Let me clarify: I said this after I read that no records were confiscated. Only rugs, dry way, etc. Never meant to imply that ANYONE would shred records.”)
Asked by Yorke whether her committee would examine the situation surrounding the audit, Serpa suggested that would be difficult because it is itself “a creation of the House of Representatives.” She also noted the state police are now involved.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) 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