NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) — House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is welcoming about 30 fellow speakers from around the country this week to Gurney’s Newport Resort, where they’re discussing policy and listening to business leaders while enjoying panoramic views of Narragansett Bay.
“The breathtaking Gurney’s Hotel is situated on its own private island with sweeping water views,” the conference’s website says. “We’ll hear from oceanographer, Robert Ballard, as he details the process of locating the Titanic, and JFK’s PT-109 as well as his latest expeditions. You’ll also have ample opportunity to build friendships with speakers from all across the country, compare notes and share ideas.”
What we don’t know is who’s footing the bill.
The four-day, invitation-only event is the 28th annual meeting of the National Speakers Conference, which is run by a business-backed nonprofit, the State Legislative Leaders Foundation. Mattiello has regularly attended the group’s events since he became speaker in 2014, and the foundation has shelled out over $14,000 for his travel, lodgings and meals over the years, Ethics Commission filings show.
State Legislative Leaders Foundation spokesperson Kate Levin said about 30 House speakers had registered for the Newport conference. “They are all welcome to bring spouses, their chiefs of staff, and their spouses,” she said, estimating the total number of attendees will be “somewhere around 150.”
But when asked how much money was being spent to throw the event and to provide a list of entities that donated to cover the cost, Levin said, “We do not disclose that information.”
Larry Berman, a spokesperson for Mattiello, declined to say if the speaker supports the foundation’s decision to keep its funding secret.
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, called the organization’s secrecy “disappointing, but not surprising.”
“These types of groups — including similar groups for governors and attorneys general — are an expanding feature of our politics,” Marion said. “They provide a way for corporate interests and others to gain access to policy makers without having to meet the disclosure requirements of campaign finance laws.”
“While it may be valuable for legislative leaders to meet with each other, what public interest is served by these meetings being sponsored by corporations that likely want specific policy outcomes from the legislatures they lead?” he added.
(On Wednesday, the day the conference began, Mattiello amended his 2018 Ethics Commission filing to disclose that he was serving as president of the National Speakers Conference. The foundation’s website shows both Mattiello and his Massachusetts counterpart, Democrat Robert DeLeo, serve on its board of directors.)
According to the State Legislative Leaders Foundation’s website, most of its funding comes “from the private sector, in the form of annual dues and program sponsorship fees.” The money is largely provided by a 70-member Advisory Council, “made up of representatives of leading corporations.”
The Advisory Council’s members include gaming technology company IGT, which is currently lobbying Mattiello and other lawmakers to give it a new 20-year state contract. (Twin River Worldwide Holdings, IGT’s fiercest foe, is not listed.) Others include Advance America, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Cox Enterprises, Johnson & Johnson, and Purdue Pharma.
But Mattiello, D-Cranston, argued the event will benefit Rhode Island.
“This is a great opportunity to showcase the rich heritage and beauty of our state to my counterparts from around the country,” he said in a statement.
“They will learn more about CVS Health’s leading role in transforming health care and combating tobacco addiction from President and CEO Larry Merlo,” he said. “They will hear from a national treasure, Dr. Bob Ballard, about his groundbreaking work at the URI School of Oceanography and his efforts to discover the remains of Amelia Earhart.”
The speakers will also hear from Rhode Island’s historian laureate, Patrick Conley, and visit the Old Colony House in Newport as well as the State House.
The Rhode Island State Police is expected to provide security for an event Friday evening at the State House. “If there is any cost associated with this, the conference will be covering it,” Levin said.
Other featured presenters will include Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics; prominent Republican political strategist Kristen Soltis Anderson; and Bill Strickland, president and CEO of the nonprofit Manchester Bidwell Corporation.
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