PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The top Republican lawmaker in the Rhode Island House has amended a lawsuit against members of the embattled Joint Committee on Legislative Services to include other state leaders as defendants.
House Minority Leader Blake Filippi on Friday expanded the suit he originally filed on Jan. 23, naming General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and state Controller Peter Keenan as co-defendants.
The amended complaint expands the legal challenge to include the executive branch, as Magaziner is independently elected and Keenan is a member of the Raimondo administration. They join a group of well-known state leaders also named as defendants in the suit, including House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio.
Filippi is challenging the authority of the powerful JCLS, which controls the General Assembly’s roughly $46 million annual budget. On paper, the committee is run by five members – Filippi, Mattiello and Ruggerio, along with House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi and Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere – but in practice decisions are entirely controlled by the chairman, Mattiello. A House spokesperson confirmed the committee hasn’t met since May 20, 2009.
Skekarchi and Algiere, along with JCLS executive director Frank Montanaro Jr., are also named as co-defendants in the suit.
“The amendments to our complaint hone in on the legal issue of Speaker Mattiello and Frank Montanaro taking unauthorized, and therefore unlawful, actions on behalf of JCLS,” Fillipi said in a statement.
“We have also added as defendants State Controller Peter Keenan and Treasurer Magaziner because these officials ultimately approve the disbursement of JCLS funds at Speaker Mattiello’s and Frank Montanaro’s direction, despite the JCLS not approving the expenditures,” he added.
Filippi points to a specific state law that authorizes the controller to draw money from the treasurer on behalf of the legislature provided that it’s legal, which the Republican leader claims isn’t the case when it comes to JCLS spending.
Brenna McCabe, a spokesperson for Keenan, responded to the lawsuit Friday saying the state controller’s responsibility is to process payments from the legislature and judiciary, but not to get involved “in the practices and internal operations of another branch of government.”
“The Executive Branch respects the separation of powers and does not exert control over the use of funds for other branches of government,” McCabe said.
Magaziner spokesperson Evan England likewise said the treasurer does not have authority over the legislature’s spending decisions.
“Treasurer Magaziner supports any effort to improve accountability and transparency in matters of public finance,” England said in a statement. “The Treasurer’s Office does not have the legal authority to unilaterally withhold funds that have been appropriated by the legislature, absent a court order to do so.”
Target 12 has reached out to spokespersons for the other defendants and is awaiting responses.
Filippi filed the original lawsuit after Target 12 revealed Mattiello ordered an unauthorized audit of the R.I. Convention Center, which the speaker has been accused of doing in retaliation for the way his friend, James Demers, was being treated there. That issue is currently the subject of a grand jury investigation. Mattiello has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
Auditor General Dennis Hoyle — who was tasked with auditing the Convention Center — was named in the original lawsuit, but has since been removed after Mattiello withdrew the request, according to Filippi. Mattiello canceled the audit within hours of Filippi filing the original lawsuit.
Beyond the addition of new defendants, the amended complaint alleges other activity has happened at the committee without proper authorization. Filippi claims Mattiello and Montanaro have unlawfully “engaged in a continuous course of conduct … without meetings of JCLS and without JCLS approval.” The committee has not met in years.
The conduct cited in the suit includes hiring employees, appointing Montanaro, setting salaries, controlling the budget, entering into contracts, printing and appointing a law revision director.
“Defendant Mattiello and Defendant Montanaro have maintained and relocated the records of the JCLS and General Assembly,” according to the complaint.
Filippi also points out that Mattiello and Montanaro have maintained, repaired and renovated the state capitol building without authorization, which was a matter of controversy last month. State police responded to the State House — out of an abundance of caution, according to a law enforcement official — to ensure no documents were being destroyed amid a sudden renovation of the JCLS office.
House leaders at the time claimed the renovation – which started around the same time the first lawsuit was filed – was necessary because there was a problem with black mold. An independent test ordered by the R.I. Department of Administration, however, showed no evidence of black mold.
After naming a litany of other unauthorized actions that happen at JCLS, the lawsuit challenges Magaziner and Keenan in their capacity as distributors of legislative appropriations.
“Keenan, in his capacity as State Controller, has approved unlawful JCLS expenditures drawn on the General Treasurer at the request of Defendants Mattiello and Montanaro,” Filippi claimed in the lawsuit. “Magaziner, in his capacity as general treasurer of the state of Rhode Island, has issued payment for unlawful JCLS expenditures at the request of Defendant Keenan.”
The Republican leader is calling on the court to intervene and stop the defendants from “taking any action which would usurp, or serve to usurp, the statutory responsibilities of JCLS,” according to the lawsuit.