PROVIDENCE — When little-known Democratic political operative Jeffrey T. Britt goes on trial today for money laundering and making an illegal campaign contribution, much of the focus will be on a guy who’s not on trial: House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello.
Britt’s lawyer says that Leo Skenyon, Mattiello’s chief of staff, told Britt to persuade a defeated GOP candidate to endorse Mattiello instead of the candidate from her own party who was seeking to unseat the Speaker in 2016. Britt has pleaded not guilty to the charge that he illegally funneled money to her to pay for a mailer that carried her endorsement.
If Skenyon knew what he was doing, Britt maintains, then so did the Mattiello campaign.
Of the three men, only Britt is charged. But Britt’s attorney is determined to put Mattiello on trial.
“I think his reputation is in jeopardy,” said Professor Michael J. Yelnosky, former dean of the Roger Williams University School of Law. “His reputation is on trial.”
Mattiello, who has been Speaker since 2014, is arguably the most powerful politician in Rhode Island, and he is among the potential witnesses that Britt’s lawyer could call to the stand in making the case that Mattiello’s campaign made Britt the “fall guy.”
So Courtroom 4E at the Kent County courthouse won’t be the setting for some obscure campaign finance case. Rather, it will be the focus of the media spotlight, and the political class will be logging onto the courtroom livestream to listen to the who’s-who list of potential witnesses.
“At the federal level, we see investigations of criminal activity involving people close to the president,” Yelnosky said, “and it creates this intersection of criminal law and politics that can be pretty toxic – a flammable mix.”
The timing of Britt’s trial only adds fuel to that fire: Testimony will begin less than a month before Mattiello faces Republican activist Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, who is married to Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, in a hard-fought House District 15 election.
“You can win the case and lose the war,” Yelnosky said. “Again, Mattiello is not the defendant, but he can come out in real political jeopardy.”
Explosive testimony remains a real possibility, given the defense strategy employed by Britt’s lawyer, Robert Clark Corrente.
“Corrente is a very savvy and sophisticated former US attorney who is going to do right by his client, even if that means casting Mattiello and others in a negative light,” Yelnosky said.
Corrente has claimed that evidence presented at trial “will show that Mr. Britt was used by the Mattiello campaign as a fall guy.” And in court filings, Britt has said Mattiello’s chief of staff, Leo Skenyon, asked him to sign an affidavit about the campaign mailer at the center of the case, but Britt refused to sign it because it was false.
Britt stands accused of funneling money to Republican Shawna Lawton so that she could put out a mailer endorsing Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, in his hotly contested 2016 race against Republican Steven Frias, who had defeated Lawton in a GOP primary. Mattiello ended up beating Frias by 85 votes in the general election.
The state Republican Party filed a complaint with the Board of Elections, 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 complaint alleged that Lawton and Mattiello engaged in “illegal coordination and consultation” because Britt met with Lawton before the mailer went out, after which she privately told others she’d been “promised” help on anti-vaccine issues in exchange for her support.
The Board of Elections 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.
On Sept. 24, Corrente issued subpoenas to Mattiello and others in advance of the trial.
Mattiello campaign spokeswoman Patti Doyle issued a statement, saying, “The Speaker is unaware of what, if any, value he can bring to the Britt trial as he had no knowledge of Britt’s actions. To that point, after a thorough investigation by both the Attorney General and Board of Elections, the Speaker was cleared of any wrongdoing. The Speaker is happy to lend any assistance he possibly can to this legal proceeding.”
While the cost of the mailer amounts to small change, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha has said that larger principles are at stake.
“Rhode Island’s election laws exist for a reason: to ensure transparency in our elections,” Neronha said in October 2019, charging that Britt had intentionally disguised the true source of funds used to pay for Lawton’s mailer. “They exist to ensure that the public can judge the motivation underlying support for a candidate. In short, they exist to ensure the integrity of our elections.”
Neronha also emphasized the importance of supporting the Board of Elections in policing campaign finance violations.
“This to me is a matter of great concern,” he said at the time. “I want to assure the people of Rhode Island that this office, in this administration, will stand behind the board in its review and investigation of election and campaign finance law violations.”
Yelnosky said the stakes are high for Neronha, a former US Attorney for Rhode Island who became attorney general in January 2019, as well as for Britt and Mattiello.
“(Neronha) has talked a lot about the importance of prosecuting public corruption cases and the need for Rhode Islanders to trust that elected officials are doing right by them,” he said. “This is a big case for him.”
Corrente, meanwhile, contends that Neronha’s office is overreaching.
On Thursday, Corrente filed a motion to dismiss the most serious of the two charges that Britt faces – money laundering, a felony which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and fine of up to $500,000. He argued that the misdemeanor count of making a prohibited campaign contribution, which carries a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine, “fits the state’s theory exactly.”
“But the state is apparently dissatisfied with that level of retribution,” Corrente wrote. “Accordingly, the state embarked on a crusade to find a bigger and more newsworthy charge.”
He claimed the use of the felony money laundering statute to “overcharge a misdemeanor” is unprecedented in Rhode Island and “would produce a result which is both absurd and egregiously unjust.”
Kristy dosReis, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said, “We will respond at the appropriate time to the court in the appropriate way.”
Craig Berke, spokesman for the Rhode Island judiciary, said Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Procaccini plans to rule on the motion to dismiss after hearing the state’s case.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant Attorney General John M. Moreira and Special Assistant Attorney General Stephen G. Dambruch, a former US Attorney for Rhode Island.
On Friday, prosecutors filed a pretrial memorandum, saying that Corrente wants to introduce text messages and e-mails between Britt and others as part of the defense. But prosecutors said he should not be allowed to introduce those communications unless and until Britt testifies at trial.
“If the defendant chooses not to testify, he must accept as a consequence that he cannot use the state’s witnesses as conduits for his own out-of-court statements,” prosecutors wrote. “Simply put, the defendant is not entitled to have his version of events introduced through the testimony of other witnesses.”
On Wednesday, prosecutors filed another document, indicating that Edward Cotugno, a mail-ballot operative who is still working for Mattiello’s campaign, is cooperating with the state.
Cotugno and his lawyer, Emili Viziri, met with prosecutors and the State Police on Sept. 28 to prepare for his trial testimony, and Cotugno recalled a conversation he had outside Mattiello’s campaign headquarters in October 2016 with Britt and Matthew Jerzyk, a political operative and former House lawyer, according to the filing.
“Britt indicated that they were ‘trying to make nice’ with Shawna Lawton,” the document states. “Britt asked if Cotugno could make a donation to Shawna Lawton’s campaign. Cotugno responded that he would and asked when they wanted the check.”
After Jerzyk and Britt stepped aside for a moment, “Britt stated that they couldn’t have Ed write the check because he was too close to the campaign," the document says. "Britt then asked whether Cotugno’s wife could write the check.” And Cotugno responded that he would ask his wife, Teresa Graham, to write the check to Lawton.
In July, Britt rejected a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for 18 months, and he waived his right to a jury trial, opting instead for a bench trial. So the verdict will be delivered by Judge Procaccini, who has handled a variety of high-profile cases since being appointed to the Superior Court in 2001.
Procaccini has 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.
Amid the pandemic, a limited number of people with a direct connection to the trial will be allowed in the courtroom, along with members of the media. But audio of the proceedings will be livestreamed at https://vimeo.com/event/346146, and people may call 1-866-819-7752/participant 3127174#.