WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Two of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s closest aides were in court Wednesday to testify before the grand jury looking into whether the speaker retaliated against Rhode Island Convention Center leaders over a personnel investigation involving his friend.
Target 12 saw both Leo Skenyon, Mattiello’s chief of staff, and Frank Montanaro Jr., executive director of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, walking into the Kent County courthouse, where the grand jury began testimony on the matter Feb. 10.
The attorney general’s office has declined to confirm or deny the existence of the grand jury investigation, citing office policy.
A third individual, Beth Johnson, who works as an accountant for the Convention Center, was also spotted Wednesday coming out of the office suite that includes the grand jury room. She was accompanied by her attorney, William Devereaux, who declined to comment.
As Target 12 has previously reported, Mattiello spoke with a Convention Center board member in December about a personnel matter involving James Demers, a friend of the speaker’s who is director of security there. Sources say Mattiello was unhappy about the situation, and days later Montanaro used his position to order an unusual performance audit of the facility.
However, Mattiello canceled the audit once Target 12 revealed it had not been properly authorized under state law. (That issue has triggered separate litigation by House Republican Leader Blake Filippi.) In the meantime, state police and the attorney general’s office began investigating the speaker’s interactions with the Convention Center.
Mattiello has denied any wrongdoing and insisted he only wanted to have a review of potential financial improprieties flagged by Demers. The speaker has declined to say exactly what Demers is alleging, and Convention Center leaders have noted their finances are audited annually.
Target 12 confirmed Wednesday that Demers is no longer employed at the Convention Center. ASM Global, the Convention Center’s private operator, had placed Demers and a second executive, Amanda Marzullo Wilmouth, on administrative leave for several weeks during a personnel investigation.
The Providence Journal reports Demers also testified Wednesday. Demers did not respond to a request for comment. His attorney, John Manni, has also not responded to multiple calls and emails requesting comment.
“They are no longer employed by ASM Global,” spokesperson Julia Morsch Sznewajs wrote in an email to Target 12 on Wednesday.
Montanaro was accompanied to court Wednesday by Kevin Bristow, who confirmed he is representing Montanaro but declined further comment. As head of JCLS, Montanaro oversees the General Assembly’s operations and its roughly $46 million annual budget.
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Montanaro said, “I answered the grand jury — all their questions — truthfully and honestly, and I saw no wrongdoing with this matter.” He declined to say what he was asked.
Montanaro demurred when asked if he regretted the commotion caused by the Convention Cenmter audit, but noted he does his job as head of JCLS and honors all requests.
Skenyon, who is being represented by attorney Tom Dickinson, told reporters he answered all the grand jury’s questions “to the best of my ability, but I can’t talk anymore about it.”
Skenyon added that he did not “plead the Fifth,” a colloquial term for witnesses who decline to answer questions that might be self-incriminating. (The term references the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.)
House spokesperson Larry Berman said Montanaro and Skenyon both took a personal day and were not testifying on state time. He also said they obtained legal counsel on their own and no state money is being spent on their court appearances.
“We have no further comment on the grand jury proceedings,” Berman said.
Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo was critical of Mattiello’s actions during a Wednesday interview on WPRO radio. The second-term governor said while she doesn’t have any special insight into the investigation, she sees it as being about principles.
“You can’t use your position to favor your friends. That’s what this is all about,” Raimondo said. “It’s that culture that’s held Rhode Island back for a long time. It’s a culture that favors insiders, it hurts taxpayers and it’s time to put an end to it.”
Berman declined to respond to Raimondo’s comments.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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