WARWICK, R.I. — They both taught at a candidates school run by a group called Operation Clean Government.
Jeffrey T. Britt, a long-time political operative, provided first-time candidates with tips on media relations, while Victor J. Pichette, a semi-retired private investigator, offered neophytes advice on opposition research – how to dig up dirt on your opponent.
On Tuesday, Britt and Pichette found themselves at the center of a high-profile campaign money-laundering trial – writing a new, lurid chapter of Rhode Island Politics 101 that appeared to be at odds with the notion of clean government.
As a star witness for the prosecution, Pichette provided damning testimony, saying Britt handed him $1,000 in cash after asking him to write a $1,000 check to a former Republican candidate so she could afford a mailer backing Democratic House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello. At the time, Britt was a consultant to Mattiello’s campaign.
Pichette testified that he told Britt he didn’t have the money. "(Britt) said, ‘I’ll give it to you and then you put it in your account and write a check out, and it will all be legitimate.’ "
But Britt’s lawyer, former US Attorney Robert Clark Corrente, conducted a withering cross-examination of Pichette, attacking his credibility and suggesting Pichette had a bunch of reasons to make that $1,000 donation.
In combing through Pichette’s grand jury testimony, Corrente zeroed in on discrepancies. “You are either lying then or you are lying now,” he said. "Which was it?”
Britt, 52, who now lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, has pleaded not guilty to charges of money laundering, a felony, and making a prohibited campaign contribution, a misdemeanor. He stands accused of funneling money to former Republican candidate Shawna Lawton so she could put out the mailer backing Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat who represents House District 15.
Corrente has said the Mattiello campaign is trying to make Britt "a fall guy.” Mattiello, who could be called as a witness on Thursday, has denied knowing anything about the mailer until much later, depicting Britt as an overzealous campaign worker trying to “ingratiate” himself.
Britt waived his right to a jury trial, so Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Procaccini will render a verdict.
Pichette, an East Greenwich resident who was granted immunity from prosecution for his testimony, said Britt hired him in 2016 to do “opposition research” and “a little bit of surveillance” of Steven Frias, the Republican candidate who was challenging Mattiello in the 2016 general election after beating Lawton in a GOP primary.
Pichette acknowledged that he scoped out Frias' house to see who was coming and going; he checked on Frias' car registration and driver’s license to make sure they were current; and he went to a Lawton fundraiser, taking photos of those in attendance and sending Britt a shot of the sign-in list.
Pichette said Britt asked him to go to the Lawton fundraiser. He said he gave Lawton $25 and offered to help with her campaign.
He said Britt contacted him in October 2016, after the Republican primary, asking if he could “help out” with the Lawton campaign mailer.
“(Britt) said that Shawna is going to do a mailing, she is going to switch sides and promote Speaker Mattiello,” Pichette said. He said Britt told him, “We need to get this flier out. Can you help?”
He said Britt asked if he would make a $1,000 donation to Lawton to help pay for the mailer.
Pichette said he asked Britt why he wasn’t making the $1,000 donation himself. "(Britt) said, ‘I could do it, but it wouldn’t look right,' so he said, 'I just need help, it’s legitimate, let’s just put it in the bank, write a check out, and it’s 100 percent legal.’ "
He said he met Britt at Britt’s home in Warwick, where Britt handed him $1,000 in cash.
Assistant Attorney General John M. Moreira noted the Rhode Island Republican Party filed a complaint with the state Board of Elections, questioning how Lawton had paid for the $2,150 mailer when she had just $43.34 in her campaign account.
Pichette said that after the complaint was filed, he called Britt. “I didn’t like what was going on,” he said. But he said Britt told him not to worry – that he had lawyers and it was no big deal.
"(Britt) said to me, ‘Just tell them I paid you for a job and you made a donation,’ " Pichette said. “I got nervous right there, I can tell you that.”
On cross-examination, Corrente hammered away at inconsistencies between Pichette’s testimony on Tuesday and his testimony before the grand jury.
Corrente said that even though Pichette was now testifying that Britt called him about making a contribution to Lawton, Pichette told the grand jury that he called Britt because Britt owed him some money. And he said Pichette told the grand jury he doubted that it was Britt who provided him with the information needed to write the $1,000 check to Lawton.
“Counselor, I’m only going by what I recall from five years ago,” Pichette told Corrente. “So you think I was lying?”
“You are either lying then or you are lying now,” Corrente said.
Corrente suggested that Pichette charged Britt $3,500 to do opposition research on Frias, and he held up a thick binder, saying Pichette had produced three binders packed with research on the Republican candidate.
Pichette said he did not recall that and denied providing three thick binders of information on Frias.
At another point, Corrente suggested Pichette had at least five reasons to support Lawton – other than being asked to donate by Britt.
For one thing, he said, Pichette “couldn’t stand Steven Frias,” and he “liked Shawna Lawton” and wanted her to win.
Also, he said Pichette had a five-year history with Britt, who sometimes gave him work. And just a month before, he had asked Britt if he could borrow $2,000.
Finally, Corrente told Pichette, “At that exact time – mid-October 2016 – you were trying to curry favor with the Speaker, weren’t you? Because you wanted help in landing a state job, right?”
Pichette said he never talked with Speaker Mattiello, but he acknowledged he was looking for a job around that time. “I had leukemia, then I had a heart attack, and then I got a divorce,” he said. “I was hurting. That’s why I was working with Jeff.”
He said he applied for a job as a workers' compensation division investigator and asked Britt to help him get an appointment. But, he said, “I would never take a patronage job – ever.”
Corrente said, “So you had your own reasons for wanting to do [Britt] a favor” by donating the $1,000 to Lawton.
“Listen, Jeff and I worked together,” Pichette said. “The guy asked for me to help out and do something. I did it. It’s less complicated than you are making it out to be, counselor.”
Richard Thornton, director of campaign finance for the state Board of Elections, is expected to testify when the trial resumes at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
The public is not allowed in the courtroom because of the pandemic. But audio of the proceedings will be available two ways: livestreamed here, and on the phone at 866-819-7752 / participant 3127174#.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.