WARWICK, R.I. — Forget “House of Cards.”
Rhode Islanders looking for a compelling political drama will soon be able to livestream the money laundering trial of Jeffrey T. Britt, a veteran political operative charged with money laundering and making a prohibited campaign contribution to aid the 2016 re-election campaign of House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello.
Following a status conference on Thursday, state Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Procaccini detailed his plans to livestream audio of the trial, which is set to begin on Oct. 5.
Amid the pandemic, only about a dozen people will be allowed to watch the trial in Courtroom 4E at the Kent County courthouse, Procaccini said. Court staff has taped blue “X”s on the courtroom benches, showing where people can sit to remain socially distanced.
But Procaccini said the court plans to livestream audio of the daily trial proceedings so that the public can follow along. The livestream link is not yet available.
“I’m not going to jeopardize people’s health, but the goal is to be as close as we can to the model we had before the pandemic for a fair and open trial,” Procaccini said. “This is a public trial, no matter if it comes before or after the pandemic.”
Britt is facing a bench trial – meaning a trial by a judge rather than a jury. It would have taken far longer to schedule a jury trial amid the pandemic.
Procaccini said the court does not have the ability to livestream video of the trial. But he said the press will be allowed to cover the trial from the jury box, including television cameras and still photographers.
Procaccini said he expects the trial to last about five days, running from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, and he expects to hear from between six and 10 witnesses.
The list of potential witnesses reads like a who’s who of Rhode Island politics, including Mattiello; his chief of staff, Leo Skenyon; and Matthew Jerzyk, Mattielo’s former deputy legal counsel and a political operative.
Britt is accused of inappropriately donating money to Shawna Lawton, a Republican candidate who lost a GOP primary, so that she would put out a mailer endorsing Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, in his 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 about the mailer until much later, depicting Britt as an overzealous campaign worker trying to “ingratiate” himself.
But 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.”
On July 22, Britt rejected a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for 18 months, opting instead to go to trial.
When asked on Thursday if a last-minute plea agreement is possible, Corrente said, “Not as far as I can see.”
Britt, who lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., did not attend Thursday’s conference, but he is expected to attend the trial in person.
The trial comes just a month before Mattiello is seeking re-election to his House District 15 seat in the Nov. 3 election against Republican activist Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, who is married to Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung.
On Thursday, Procacinni held a half-hour in-chambers status conference with Corrente, Special Assistant Attorney General Stephen G. Dambruch, and Assistant Attorney General John M. Moreira.
Afterward, Corrente reiterated his contention that the felony charge against Britt is unwarranted. “I think the case was overcharged,” he said. “We will see what happens at trial.”