WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Jeffrey Britt was already en route to his home in Florida when his criminal trial in Rhode Island wrapped up Friday, after a week of testimony that peeled back the curtain on the inner workings of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s 2016 campaign.
Judge Daniel Procaccini plans to render a verdict four to six weeks after receiving written arguments from both sides, he said Friday. The judge is deciding the case because Britt waived his right to a trial by a jury of his peers.
Britt was the only person charged in a highly publicized saga over a 2016 mailer sent to some Cranston voters in District 15 where failed Republican candidate Shawna Lawton endorsed the Democratic speaker for state representative, rather than Republican Steve Frias to whom she had just lost the primary.
Prosecutors allege Britt illegally funneled money to pay for the mailer by giving $1,000 cash to a man named Victor Pichette, who then made a $1,000 campaign donation to Lawton, who had already lost her race. Lawton testified she gave Britt a check from her campaign using that money plus another $1,000 donation from Teresa Graham — wife of Ed Cotugno, who was gathering mail ballots for the Mattiello campaign — which prosecutors say Britt then used to pay for the mailer in an attempt to hide his own involvement.
Only the prosecution chose to make a closing argument to the judge Friday morning, as both sides are also required to submit written arguments by Oct. 19. Procaccini excused Britt from attending the brief final day of his trial.
Stephen Dambruch, chief of the criminal division at the R.I. Attorney General’s Office, said the evidence from the past week “proves that Mr. Britt initiated and fully participated in this scheme,” urging Procaccini to convict him.
“The experienced political operative, as he was described yesterday, targeted a political novice … for his big win,” Dambruch said in his final argument. “That big win being to orchestrate what appeared to be on its face an independent Republican endorsement of Mr. Mattiello, but in reality an endorsement that was coordinated and ultimately the mailer that was produced by the Mattiello campaign operatives, consultants, and partially funded by Mr. Britt himself.”
In giving instructions to the attorneys for their written arguments Friday, Procaccini focused on the felony money laundering statute with which Britt is charged. The charge carries up to 20 years in prison and appears untested in Rhode Island.
“No one has any recollection of the statute being applied to any circumstances previously,” Procaccini said, adding that he asked his fellow judges about any precedent for the statute. “It does not read in a smooth, simple straightforward fashion.”
A court spokesperson who ran a search on the statute afterwards said there does not appear to have ever been a money laundering trial in R.I. Superior Court, though the 1991 law has been charged on 18 occasions since 1992, all of which were either dismissed or ended in plea deals.
A search of the statute in a legal research database also found little mention of the Rhode Island money laundering law, with just one citation in a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court court decision where a defendant was charged with the federal version of the crime.
Procaccini said his confusion about the statute was in its punctuation — including use of colons and semicolons instead of commas in listing the required elements of the crime — and he asked the lawyers to submit arguments about how the indictment does or does not meet the criteria of the law.
“My mind’s open,” Procaccini said. “I’m not sure at this moment. … It is a serious charge with a substantial potential penalty and I want to get any input you might have on that in working towards my decision.”
The second, lesser crime Britt is charged with is a misdemeanor count of making a prohibited campaign contribution, which carries a $1,000 fine and no jail time.
Britt did not testify in his own defense at trial.
In addition to trying Britt on the charges, the trial provided in an inside look at a side of campaigning not usually visible to the voters. Witnesses testified about covert surveillance, mail ballot operations and the behind-the-scenes politicking of Mattiello’s 2016 campaign.
Mattiello himself was called by the defense to testify Thursday, claiming he had no knowledge of the Lawton mailer until after it hit mailboxes. He said he thought the mailer — aimed at getting Republicans to vote for Mattiello instead of Frias — would hurt his campaign.
“I was angry with the mailer and I called my chief of staff Leo Skenyon and yelled at him,” Mattiello said. Skenyon was also subpoenaed to testify for the defense, along with former Mattiello legal adviser and campaign aide Matt Jerzyk.
On the state’s side, seven witnesses including Lawton, Pichette, Cotugno and Graham were called over the course of the week, in addition to campaign consultants Brad Dufault and Paul Sasso, plus Board of Elections campaign finance director Ric Thornton.
It was the Board of Elections that initially referred the case to the attorney general’s office for possible prosecution following an investigation by the elections board in response to a complaint filed by then-Republican Party Chair Brandon Bell.
Mattiello beat Frias by just 85 votes in that 2016 election — Cotugno took credit at the trial for securing the mail ballot votes — and then bested Frias again in 2018 by a wider margin.
This year, Mattiello is facing a challenge from Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, who quickly turned his testimony Thursday into a digital campaign advertisement.
The verdict in the case is likely to come after the Nov. 3 election. Procaccini said he usually takes four to six weeks to render a verdict, and he will give one week’s notice before handing down the decision.
Tim White, Eli Sherman and Ted Nesi contributed to this report.