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R.I. POLITICS

As a grand jury probe involving Speaker Mattiello continues, the question remains: What’s the crime?

House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello at the Rhode Island State House last month as the 2020 legislative session began.
House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello at the Rhode Island State House last month as the 2020 legislative session began.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island lawmakers returned to work Tuesday after a week off, but the topic of conversation — the gossip, really — remains the same as it was before they left for their February break: What will come of a grand jury probe into whether House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello retaliated against officials at the Rhode Island Convention Center for a personnel investigation that involved his friend?

Two of Mattiello’s top aides, including his chief of staff, have already appeared before the statewide grand jury, and at least a half dozen other individuals have been subpoenaed in connection with the investigation.

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And while the secretive nature of a grand jury process that can take anywhere from a couple of days to six months gives plenty of opportunity for rumors to take hold in public, former prosecutors say the outcome of the case will depend on how much new information the 23 grand jurors obtain during the investigation.

“It’s one thing for people to run their mouths, but this isn’t gossip at a cocktail party,” said Eva-Marie Mancuso, a former assistant district attorney in Bristol County and assistant attorney general in Rhode Island. “You better be able to raise your right hand it under oath and say it.”

Mancuso said one sign that suggests Mattiello is the target of the investigation is that he hasn’t been subpoenaed, even though he has been publicly accused of abusing his power by ordering an audit into the convention center around the same time that his friend — former State Police captain James Demers — faced an unrelated personnel investigation at the center. (Demers no longer works there.)

Mattiello ultimately withdrew his request for the audit after WPRI-TV reported his connection to Demers, and House minority leader Blake Filippi filed suit claiming the speaker didn’t have the authority to order an audit without the approval of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services.

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That’s when the grand jury subpoenas started flying, including to Mattiello’s aides and several convention center employees.

Attorney General Peter Neronha has repeatedly declined to comment on the investigation, but Mancuso said that it’s possible a case can be made that Mattiello abused his public office by ordering the audit.

The most serious charge, she said, could be extortion, although she acknowledged that the “he said, she said” nature of the case makes a crime difficult to prove.

“There are so many scenarios, but the bottom line is, did he gain in any way as result of his conduct?” Mancuso said.

Statewide grand juries are composed of 23 people and sit for six months at a time, usually hearing dozens of cases during that period. They meet on Mondays and Wednesdays, according to Kristy dosReis, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.

The very existence of the investigation has shaken the State House to its core, especially in the wake of the unrelated indictment last year of former Mattiello campaign aide Jeffrey Britt on a money laundering charge that was connected to Mattiello’s 2016 reelection campaign. Britt has pleaded not guilty, and Mattiello claims he had no knowledge of the allegations against his former aide.

While Mattiello has said he will continue conducting business as usual, Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung announced this week she intends to challenge him in District 15, the section of western Cranston he represents. Fenton-Fung is the wife of Cranston Mayor Allan Fung.

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Because this grand jury investigation involves an elected official who is widely considered the most powerful politician in the state, the attorney general’s office has a “delicate balancing act,” according to Dawson Hodgson, who worked as a prosecutor in the Rhode Island attorney general’s office from 2005 to 2010.

Hodgson, who is also a former state senator, said elected officials have a sheen of legitimacy because they were put into office by voters. No attorney general wants it to appear they are seeking to overturn the will of the people.

“But people do become bad, or they are bad, or they make bad choices,” he said. In Mattiello’s case, Hodgson said he thinks the use of the grand jury is a “good faith application.”

For now, the speculation about Mattiello at the State House is only likely to grow.

But Mancuso said gossiping about how far a case may go can be futile. While it’s true that new evidence can turn up or individuals who testify can be charged if they perjure themselves, she said the prosecutor typically knows what they’re looking for when they bring a case to a grand jury.

“It’s not like TV where they say, ‘Oh you didn’t ask, but I killed a guy,’” Mancuso quipped.

And no matter the outcome, Hodgson said he believes the grand jury investigation will send an important message to politicians.

“It is almost immaterial whether an indictment is issued," Hodgson said, "and that’s because the existence of the investigation itself is building guardrails between political muscle and potential criminal conduct.”

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Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.