PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee’s chief of staff, Tony Silva, is stepping down as he faces an independent investigation by the attorney general and the state police over his efforts to influence a controversial wetlands development in Cumberland.
Silva, who has been McKee’s chief of staff since 2015 in both the lieutenant governor’s office and now the governor’s office, is retiring effective immediately. Antonio Afonso Jr., a lawyer who has been serving as McKee’s senior deputy chief of staff, will take over as chief of staff.
“Tony and I reached a mutual agreement that it is in the best interest of the administration for him to retire from state government effective immediately,” McKee said in a statement Monday morning.
“Right now, his situation is a distraction from the critical work we have ahead,” McKee said. “I appreciate that Tony understands the need to remove the distraction to ensure we can continue serving Rhode Islanders effectively.”
Silva becomes the shortest-tenured chief of staff to a newly inaugurated governor since 1991, when Ed Wood lasted only 79 days as the top aide to Democrat Bruce Sundlun.
Speaking to reporters outside an unrelated event Monday morning, McKee repeatedly described Silva as “a professional” who understood his position with the governor had become untenable.
“We recognize the amount of distraction that’s going on right now — it’s clear,” McKee said. “I mean all you have to do is look at the newspapers or listen to any of the media. … He understands that distraction can’t get in the way of us recovering on the COVID, keeping people healthy, and then keeping our economy going.”
McKee added: “I stand by the fact I don’t expect anything that’s going to be on a legal nature with what Tony has done.”
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The announcement comes after weeks of mounting controversy over Silva’s efforts to develop a wetlands property at 45 Canning St. in Cumberland. Target 12 first revealed text messages and emails showing Silva continued pressing Cumberland Mayor Jeff Mutter to withdraw the town’s objections to the development long after Silva claimed he had given up his financial interest in the property.
McKee initially stood by Silva, telling reporters he had found no evidence his chief of staff exerted undue influence over the R.I. Department of Environmental Management and that he was comfortable with how Silva had interacted with Mutter.
But the governor reversed course within 24 hours, asking Attorney General Peter Neronha and R.I. State Police Col. James Manni to conduct an independent investigation into Silva’s actions. McKee and Neronha are both Democrats.
Kristy dosReis, a spokesperson for Neronha, said Monday: “This office and the Rhode Island State Police continue to investigate the matter of Tony Silva and the proposed development in Cumberland. Today’s announcement has no impact on the investigation, which remains ongoing.”
Silva has maintained his actions were appropriate. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” he told Target 12 last week.
Separately, the R.I. Republican Party has filed a complaint against Silva with the R.I. Ethics Commission, pointing out that he did not report his interest in the 45 Canning St. property as part of his mandatory annual financial disclosures. Silva has said he did not think he needed to disclose the property because he had not closed on the transaction.
McKee and Silva are both influential figures in Cumberland, where McKee served as mayor and Silva as police chief. Silva held a part-time position as the town’s $7,500-a-year deputy director of emergency management until new scrutiny of the longstanding arrangement led him to resign last Thursday.
Silva previously served as director of the R.I. Division of Motor Vehicles under Gov. Lincoln Chafee and is eligible for an annual state pension of $44,845, according to the treasurer’s office. He also receives a roughly $21,000 pension from the town of Lincoln for his years of service there as a police officer.
Afonso, the new chief of staff, is a prominent attorney who also hails from Cumberland. Afonso briefly served as acting chief of staff soon after McKee took office in March when the governor temporarily assigned Silva to oversee day-to-day management of the state’s COVID-19 response.
Afonso and his former law firm, Moses Afonso Ryan, made headlines in 2014 as the first defendant to reach a settlement with the state in the lawsuit over 38 Studios. They paid $4.4 million in 2014 due to their work on the $75 million in state-backed bonds sold to benefit Curt Schilling’s video-game company.
One of McKee’s rivals in the 2022 Democratic primary for governor, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, weighed in after the announcement about Silva.
“As I said a week ago – it is unacceptable for local government to be pressured by those in power for private gain,” Gorbea tweeted. “Mr. Silva stepping down is the right call for the state. Still – what did the Governor know? When did he know it? Our state’s wellbeing and future growth depend on Rhode Island moving beyond this type of ‘I know a guy’ politics.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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