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Top political figures could be called to testify in R.I. money laundering trial

Pre-trial hearing for Jeffrey T. Britt set for Tuesday, hours before General Assembly begins 2020 session

Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello on the floor of the House Chamber in 2014.
Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello on the floor of the House Chamber in 2014.Steven Senne/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE -- The state’s list of potential witnesses in the money laundering trial of political operative Jeffrey T. Britt reads like a who’s who of Rhode Island politics.

House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello finds himself listed among the potential witnesses as the General Assembly prepares to kick off its 2020 legislative session on Tuesday afternoon. Britt’s pre-trial conference is scheduled to take place hours earlier, on Tuesday morning, in state Superior Court.

Britt, 51, who lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., has pleaded not guilty to a felony charge of money laundering and a misdemeanor charge of making a prohibited campaign contribution in Mattiello’s 2016 re-election campaign.

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Britt stands accused of funneling money to a Republican candidate, Shawna Lawton, so she could put out a mailer endorsing Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, in his hotly contested 2016 House district race against state Republican National Committeeman Steven Frias. Mattiello eked out a win, edging Frias by 85 votes.

The state Republican Party filed a complaint with the Board of Elections in October 2016, accusing Mattiello’s campaign of illegally coordinating with Lawton on the mailer. The party claimed the $2,150 spent on the mailer was an in-kind contribution from Lawton that exceeded the state’s $1,000 annual limit on donations.

The board found that Lawton, who had just $43 in her campaign account after the primary, received $1,000 each from two Mattiello-affiliated donors, Victor Pichette and Teresa Graham, to pay for the mailer. The board issued warnings to Mattiello and Lawton but referred Britt to the attorney general’s office for potential prosecution.

Mattiello has denied knowing anything until much later about the mailer, depicting Britt as an overzealous campaign worker trying to “ingratiate” himself. Britt’s lawyer, former US Attorney Robert Clark Corrente, has said evidence presented at trial “will show that Mr. Britt was used by the Mattiello campaign as a fall guy.”

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In response to a request from Corrente, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office submitted a list of potential witnesses that includes:

  • Mattiello, who could be called to testify about three checks that Friends of Mattiello issued to Britt’s firm, Strategic Consulting Services, as well as about State Police reports and Board of Elections records.
  • Mattiello’s chief of staff, Leo Skenyon, who could be called to testify about what he said when State Police contacted him on Oct. 15, 2019.
  • Matthew Jerzyk, Mattielo’s former deputy legal counsel and a political operative, who could be called to testify about emails between him and Brad Dufault, of Checkmate Consulting Group, about the Lawton mailer. Prosecutors say Jerzyk testified before the grand jury.
  • Brad Dufault “and/or the keeper of the records” at Checkmate Consulting Group, who could be asked to testify about the Lawton mailer and emails between him and Jerzyk. Prosecutors say Dufault testified before the grand jury.
  • Ed Cotugno, Graham’s husband and a long-time campaign operative who helped Mattiello with the mail-ballot effort in 2016, who could be called to testify about State Police reports regarding Graham, Skenyon and Jerzyk.
  • Larry Berman, communications director for the House speaker’s office.
  • Jake Bissaillon, former deputy communications director for the House speaker’s office, who is now legal counsel to the Senate majority leader.

The list of potential witnesses also includes Lawton, who could be asked about her mailer, a $2,150 invoice from All the Answers Inc. for the mailer, and the pair of $1,000 checks issued to Friends of Shawna Lawton by Pichette and Graham.

Pichette, a Warwick resident, could be asked to testify about those $1,000 checks. Prosecutors say Pichette was granted immunity and testified before a grand jury.

Graham, a Greenville resident, could be called to testify about the $1,000 checks, as well as two pages of text messages between her and Britt from Aug. 14 and Oct. 18, 2016. Prosecutors say she testified before the grand jury.

The list of potential witnesses includes Richard Thornton, campaign finance director for the Board of Elections.

The list also includes William J. Lynch, a former state Democratic Party chairman who could be asked about Skenyon, his client; and John M. Cicilline, brother of US Rep. David N. Cicilline, who could be asked about Lawton, his client.

In responding to the request for documents and witnesses, the attorney general’s office mentioned a July 24, 2018, affidavit from Britt. Prosecutors say Britt did not testify before the grand jury.

Assistant Attorney General John M. Moreira and Special Assistant Attorney General Stephen G. Dambruch filed the list of potential witnesses on Dec. 16.

The pre-trial conference is scheduled to take place Tuesday morning in Superior Court in Kent County before Magistrate John F. McBurney III, who served as a state senator from 1974 to 2010. No trial date has been set.

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.