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The trial of former Mattiello aide Britt is halfway over. Here’s where things stand

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The state rests.

Over the course of three days, Rhode Island prosecutors laid out their case against Jeffrey Britt, arguing the former campaign adviser to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is guilty of laundering money and violating campaign finance laws from his time working on the speaker’s re-election campaign in 2016.

The state’s argument included campaign finance records, bank statements, emails and text messages, along with testimony from seven witnesses, who helped paint a picture of a political operative that took it upon himself to orchestrate the payment, creation and distribution of a pro-Mattiello campaign mailer at the heart of the case.

On Wednesday, Stephen Dambruch and John Moreira of the Rhode Island attorney general’s office – who are trying the case against Britt – wrapped up their arguments after calling the state’s last witness, Richard Thornton, who oversees campaign finance at the R.I. Board of Elections.

The spotlight now turns to the defense, which is led by former Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente, who is hoping Judge Daniel Procaccini will rule in his favor on a motion to dismiss. The two sides will argue the motion Thursday morning, with Procaccini expected to rule at a later date.

Former Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente (WPRI/Jim Hughes)

On Thursday, Corrente will start making the case for Britt’s defense, which could include calling Mattiello to testify under oath about the 2016 election.

From the beginning, Corrente has made the consistent argument that Britt is a “fall guy” for Mattiello’s campaign, the charges against him are overblown and the state’s case is factually incorrect.

“This entire proceeding from beginning to end has been highly irregular,” Corrente said about the investigation into Britt’s actions, which started with the state’s Republican Party filing a complaint with the Board of Elections in 2016.

Since the trial kicked off Monday, Corrente has tried to poke holes in the state’s case, focusing largely on the credibility of those who provided testimony, including the state’s star witness, Victor Pichette.

The campaign consultant, whose work with Britt on Mattiello’s 2016 campaign included showing up at events held by the speaker’s Republican opponent, Steve Frias, to secretly photograph and keep tabs on those who attended, testified with immunity on Tuesday.

His testimony detailed how Britt paid him $1,000 in cash to make a $1,000 check donation to the campaign of Shawna Lawton, a political newcomer who lost to Frias in the 2016 Republican primary, so she could pay for a mailer supporting Mattiello — a Democrat — in the general election.

Pichette’s donation – along with another $1,000 from a different person affiliated with the Mattiello campaign – was not disclosed until after the election ended with the speaker narrowly defeating Frias by just 85 votes.

Pichette’s testimony has become a focal point of the state’s case, spurring Corrente on Wednesday to again call into question Pichette’s credibility, which he attacked repeatedly the day before.

“He told you he didn’t even know Jeff Britt, didn’t he,” Corrente asked Thornton, who investigated the mailer for more than a year beginning in 2016.

“Yes he did,” Thornton answered.

Later, in response to an objection from the Moriera regarding his line of questioning during cross-examination, Corrente explained why Pichette’s credibility is so important to his argument and his client’s innocence.

“If the state’s main witness was lying to the Board of Elections, I think it is critically important evidence in our defense,” he said.  

The Thornton testimony focused primarily on the rules and regulations of campaign finance, which he knew well enough to cite from memory under oath. But it also shed light on how the Mattiello and Lawton campaigns obfuscated and actively stymied his investigation of the campaign mailer and how it got funded, even after the election ended.

Following the GOP complaint in 2016, Thornton requested responses from both campaigns, and was mostly brushed off. He later subpoenaed records from multiple people across both campaigns, including tacking one to Lawton’s door. Thornton testified that he had trouble even locating Pichette.

During his testimony, former Board of Elections member Steve Erickson, who served at the time of the investigation, offered his insight into that time on Twitter.

“You know, they really did think this would all ‘go away’ if they stonewalled enough,” Erickson tweeted.

After initially insisting there had been no coordination between the two campaigns, Mattiello’s team eventually reversed course and reimbursed Lawton’s campaign, admitting coordination. At times, answers changed within the manner of weeks, and often contradicted what was discussed publicly.

“In the space of 10 days you got two completely contradictory answers, right?” Corrente asked.

“That’s correct,” Thornton answered.

In the end, Thornton concluded both the Mattiello and Lawton campaigns should be issued a warning. The board ultimately decided to refer Britt to the attorney general’s office, which launched the grand jury investigation that concluded with charges against him last year.

The question of why Britt was the only one whose name was referred to the attorney general, something Thornton said has happened fewer than six times over his 17-plus years working there, is one of the core elements of Britt’s defense.

“They had documents that indicated that everybody else was lying to them,” Corrente said. “That Mr. Pichette lied to them, that the Lawton campaign lied to them, that the Mattiello campaign had lied to them. And then the only thing that comes out of this is a referral of Jeff Britt to the attorney general’s office. It’s outrageous.”

In the event Corrente’s motion to dismiss fails Thursday, court documents show Mattiello, along with his chief of staff Leo Skenyon and his former political aide Matt Jerzyk, could be called to testify.

When asked by Judge Procaccini if he plans to call the speaker tomorrow, Corrente responded Wednesday, “Yes.”

Richard Thornton of the R.I. Board of Elections (WPRI/Jim Hughes)

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

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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