WARWICK, R.I. — The state’s most powerful politician, Democratic House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, took the witness stand Thursday, saying he was ticked off when he first saw a 2016 campaign mailer in which a Republican endorsed him.
Jeffrey T. Britt, a political consultant who worked on Mattiello’s re-election campaign that year, faces a felony money-laundering charge for allegedly funneling money to a pair of associates so that a defeated Republican candidate, Shawna Lawton, could put out a flyer trumpeting her support for Mattiello.
Britt’s defense lawyer, Robert Clark Corrente, has argued that Britt is being used as a “fall guy” for the Mattiello campaign, and on Thursday he called Mattiello and his chief of staff to the stand during the final day of testimony.
Both Mattiello and Skenyon provided testimony distancing themselves from Britt and the now-infamous Lawton mailer.
Mattiello said he first found out about the mailer when it hit mailboxes in his House district in Cranston.
“I called my chief of staff, Leo Skenyon, and I yelled at him because I was angry with the mailer,” Mattiello testified. “I thought that it was not a good idea. I thought it was going to hurt my campaign in the last days of the campaign.”
Despite being livid, Mattiello acknowledged that he did not fire Britt. In fact, his campaign paid Britt a $10,000 bonus. And then he tried to get Britt to work for him again.
“I asked him to work on my 2018 campaign for the exact same reason I asked him to work on my 2016 campaign,” Mattiello said. “Because the word I received is that he was either going to work for you or against you. I had a difficult campaign and didn’t want him to work against me.”
In response to questions from prosecutors, Mattiello explained why Britt was considered a valuable ally – or a dangerous foe. He said Britt has a reputation for doing opposition research – essentially digging up dirt on opponents – and finding a way to get those stories told through the media.
“The best way I could describe it is he drops dimes and tries to make connections,” Mattiello said.
Before the 2016 campaign, Mattiello said, a lot of people were recommending that he hire Britt, while many others were urging him to stay away from him. But he decided to hire Britt because he was in a tight race against Republican Steven Frias.
“It was a decision I regret at this point,” Mattiello said.
Frias, a Republican National Committeeman, defeated Lawton in the 2016 GOP primary before losing to Mattiello in the House District 15 general election by just 85 votes. The state Republican Party ended up filing a complaint with the state Board of Elections over the mailer, in which Lawton backed Mattiello.
Prosecutors claim that Britt arranged for two associates – Victor Pichette and Teresa Graham – to each write $1,000 checks to Lawton, who had just $43 in her campaign account, so that she could pay for the $2,150 mailer.
Corrente zeroed in on how much authority Mattiello and Skenyon wielded in making decisions about the 2016 campaign, including the authorization of mailers.
Mattiello agreed that his campaign might have put out 50 to 60 mailers during the hard-fought race against Frias, and he said he had the final authority over whether a flier would go out. He said a few mailers might have “snuck through” but “generally I reviewed all mailers.” And he said he signed all the checks for money spent by his campaign.
But Mattiello tried to distance himself from work that Britt did on the campaign.
For example, Pichette, a semi-retired private investigator, testified earlier in the trial that he did opposition research and surveillance of Frias on behalf of Britt during the 2016 campaign.
But Mattiello said he did not authorize that work. “I don’t know who Mr. Pichette is,” he said. “Never met him.”
He said he does not know who put together a binder of opposition research on Frias. “It was not anything interesting,” he said. “I never cracked the binder open on it.”
Skenyon also took the witness stand and distanced himself from the Lawton mailer.
“I don’t believe I had any role in it," he said.
Corrente displayed a text message among Britt, Skenyon, and former State House lawyer and political operative Matthew Jerzyk. The text from Britt said, “Reminder have Leo sign off on Lawton mailer and I will get Lawton what she needs to execute.”
When shown that text message, Skenyon said, "I don’t remember this.”
When Corrente asked if he remembered reviewing the Lawton mailer, Skenyon said, “No, I do not."
Jerzyk also testified, agreeing that Britt had been hired to drum up Republican support for the Mattiello campaign. He recalled that Britt came into Mattiello headquarters to report that he had secured Lawton’s endorsement.
Jerzyk said he typed up the text of the Lawton mailer based on Britt’s discussions with Lawton about why she was now supporting Mattiello. And he said he gave a mailing list to a consulting company to send out 3,390 of the Lawton mailers.
But Jerzyk said he didn’t have a “specific recollection” of whether Skenyon had final say over the Lawton mailer.
“It was Jeff Britt’s project,” he said. “I am not sure who he was checking with on it.”
The day began with the prosecution and defense clashing over whether state Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Procaccini should dismiss the most serious charge facing Britt — money laundering, a felony that carries a fine of up to $500,000 and up to 20 years in prison.
“It’s dropping an atom bomb on a bug,” Corrente said. “It’s just absolutely preposterous.”
Britt also faces a misdemeanor charge of making a prohibited campaign contribution, which carries a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine.
Corrente emphasized that the felony charge hinges on a relatively small amount of money – a $1,000 check – and he argued that state law does not allow prosecutors to charge Britt with anything other than a misdemeanor based on the facts in the case.
To prosecute Britt for money laundering, the state must prove Britt intended to avoid a campaign finance reporting requirement, Corrente said. But Britt did not have a reporting requirement because he was not a candidate, a campaign treasurer, or the head of a political action committee.
But Special Assistant Attorney General Stephen G. Dambruch argued that the felony charge is justified.
While the defense argues that a $1,000 contribution is “not that significant,” Dambruch said, “The state begs to differ. This case involves an overarching scheme to corruptly influence the electoral process." He said Britt’s misconduct "strikes at the heart of the electoral system and undermines the integrity of that system by replacing transparency with deception.”
Dambruch said state law prohibits conducting a financial transaction to avoid a reporting requirement, regardless of who had that reporting requirement, so it doesn’t matter that Britt was not a candidate or a campaign treasurer.
Britt, 52, who now lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, waived his right to a jury trial, so Procaccini, the judge, will render the verdict.
The lawyers for each side will present their closing oral arguments at 10 a.m. Friday. They then will have a week to submit legal memos to the judge, arguing what the evidence has or has not established. Procaccini said he expects to render a decision in about four to six weeks.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.