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Rhode Island’s strange history of political dumpster diving

State Police inspect trash container outside State House, bringing to mind the state’s most infamous dumpster dive

State police checked out a dumpster outside the Rhode Island State House, after getting a tip.
State police checked out a dumpster outside the Rhode Island State House, after getting a tip.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE -- The dumpster occupies a prominent place in Rhode Island’s rich political lore.

In the 1990s, Governor Edward D. DiPrete allegedly rummaged through a trash bin behind Walt’s Roast Beef in Cranston to try to retrieve a $10,000 cash bribe. (DiPrete denied it).

Late Monday night, the dumpster chronicles gained a new chapter when State Police detectives descended on the State House and peered inside a dumpster, acting on a tip about discarded documents, a law enforcement source confirmed.

“Rhode Island has a problem getting over its reputation as a place where dumpsters have meaningful information for law enforcement,” Providence College political science Professor Joseph Cammarano said Tuesday. “I’m from New Jersey, and this sounds really odd to me.”

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Monday night’s scene, captured by WPRI-12 cameras, comes as the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority has asked the State Police to investigate why House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello ordered an audit of the authority. The audit’s timing raised suspicions because Mattiello’s friend, who heads Convention Center security, has been suspended.

But on Tuesday, House spokesman Larry Berman said no documents were disposed of in the State House dumpster. And, he said, “It had absolutely nothing to do with the audit.”

Rather, it had to do with mold, Berman said. The dumpster contained carpeting, furniture, and partitions that were removed after a steam pipe leaked and black mold was discovered in offices of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, chaired by Mattiello, he said.

While there is no indication police found anything incriminating when they looked inside the dumpster with a flashlight, the late-night scene illuminates the political landscape facing Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat considered the state’s most powerful politician.

Not only is the Convention Center Authority calling for a State Police investigation, House Republican Leader Blake A. Filippi has filed a lawsuit, claiming Mattiello violated the law by ordering the audit without approval of the full five-member Joint Committee on Legislative Services, which includes Filippi.

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While Mattiello has called off the audit, another case of political intrigue awaits him in the months ahead: He might have to testify in the money-laundering case brought against campaign strategist Jeffrey T. Britt in connection with Mattiello’s 2016 re-election campaign.

Britt is accused of funneling money to a Republican candidate so she could put out a mailer endorsing Mattiello, who ended up edging Republican National Committeeman Steven Frias by 85 votes. A pretrial conference is set for March 10.

Mattiello could also face a rematch against Frias in the fall elections, and other potential candidates include Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung.

On Tuesday, Frias said he has not decided whether he will again challenge Mattiello for the House District 15 seat in Cranston.

But Frias weighed in on Monday night’s dumpster search, noting the Convention Center Authority requested the State Police investigate the motivation behind the audit -- which Mattiello ordered while his friend, security director James Demers, was embroiled in a personnel issue.

“The State Police don’t usually check on people when they are throwing out their garbage,” Frias said. “It tells me they’re taking that request (from the Convention Center Authority) seriously. As we all know from Rhode Island history, dumpsters can be used to throw away evidence or retrieve bribes.”

Frias noted Mattiello is on the state’s list of potential witnesses in Britt’s money-laundering case, saying, "It looks like the speaker will have a busy spring with law enforcement. We can only imagine what Jeff Britt will have to say about what the speaker and his cronies knew and did during the 2016 election.”

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Berman dismissed Frias’ comments as “ridiculous” statements from a “political opportunist” who has twice lost to Mattiello.

“It’s all political,” he said. “Here’s a guy, a two-time loser who obviously is interested in running for the seat a third time.”

Berman said an employee discovered a stain beneath a floor mat in a basement office used by the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, which handles the General Assembly’s administrative functions.

The Department of Administration called in a firm that discovered a leaking steam pipe and black mold, which made the room uninhabitable, he said. “It’s an old building,” he said of the State House, which was built between 1895 and 1904.

Over the weekend, workers started removing carpeting, partitions, and furniture and placed them in a dumpster, and staff was relocated on Monday, Berman said.

“No documents, no paper was thrown out,” he said.

Berman said that while the audit has been called off, Mattiello maintains that scrutiny is warranted and has no connection to the Demers personnel matter. “The speaker wants to know what the Convention Center has to hide,” he said.

The State Police superintendent, Colonel James M. Manni, said he could not confirm or deny an investigation, but he acknowledged receiving the Convention Center Authority letter asking the police to look into the audit.

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Manni declined to answer questions about State Police activity at the State House on Monday night, and he declined to say what was found in the dumpster.

On Tuesday, Filippi wrote a letter to Frank Montanaro, executive director of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, saying, “I have come to learn that records and computer hard drives have been removed from" the JCLS offices without notifying him as a member of the JCLS. “That you have done so in the face of the pending litigation is beyond the pale."

Berman said computers, file cabinets, and documents weren’t removed from the building -- they were just relocated to an adjoining office because of the mold. “It’s a political stunt,” he said of Filippi’s letter. "The only things thrown out were the carpeting, partitions, and some old furniture.”

Berman said State Police returned to the State House on Tuesday afternoon and looked at the vacated Joint Committee on Legislative Services offices.

By Tuesday night, five Democratic state representatives were issuing a statement about “the scandal-plagued speaker," calling for the “Democratic Caucus to address the current state of affairs in the Rhode Island House of Representatives.”

Berman said the five representatives -- Teresa Tanzi, Kathleen Fogarty, Moira Walsh, John Lombardi, and Raymond Hull -- are “constant critics” of Mattiello. “This is no surprise," he said.

“When is enough, enough?" asked Fogarty, a South Kingstown Democrat. “It is probably when the Rhode Island State Police are searching State House dumpsters in the dead of night.”

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com