WARWICK, R.I. — Jeffrey T. Britt, the political operative accused of money laundering to bolster House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello’s 2016 campaign, could have his fate, and potentially his freedom, decided by a colon or semicolon.
On Friday, the trial judge said that the state’s rarely used money laundering law is unclear, and he asked lawyers to weigh in on its punctuation to be sure Britt’s indictment matches the law’s requirements.
“We have to go back to our days studying English and English comprehension,” Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Procaccini said.
The judge said he plans to issue a ruling in the high-profile trial in five to seven weeks – meaning the verdict won’t be rendered until after Election Day, when Mattiello faces another hard-fought re-election campaign in House District 15.
The weeklong trial concluded on Friday after prosecutors made final oral arguments, claiming that Britt committed a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison when he funneled $1,000 to a defeated Republican candidate, Shawna Lawton, so she could put out a mailer endorsing Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat.
Mattiello testified on Thursday, saying he never authorized the Lawton mailer and was angry when it hit the mailboxes in his district just before Election Day.
After hearing final arguments, Procaccini said Rhode Island’s money laundering statute has “gone virtually unnoticed” for many years.
“I consulted with my colleagues. I’ve been on the bench for 20 years,” he said. “No one recalls a money laundering case in the state Superior Court being filed or pursued in any way.”
Without prior cases as a guide, much will depend on the interpretation of the law’s language, he said. But the problem, he said, is that, “It does not read in a smooth, simple straightforward fashion.”
For instance, he said, the statute uses colons and semicolons rather than the commas found in most criminal laws, and it doesn’t use the “and/or” conjunction found in many laws.
So, Procaccini said, it remains unclear if the elements of the crime spelled out in the law match the elements outlined in Britt’s indictment.
Procaccini noted that other states have different degrees of money laundering crimes, based in part on the amount of money involved. But Rhode Island has just one level of money laundering and it carries a fine of up to $500,000 and prison term of up to 20 years.
So, he said, he wants to be sure that he is properly interpreting that statute, and he wants to be sure it has been properly charged and applied.
“Does the plain language of the indictment and the statute fairly and properly apprise the defendant of what he has been charged with?” Procaccini said.
He needs to determine if language of the indictment “has been distorted in a way that might have some legal effect," he said. "I’m not sure at this moment.”
The judge asked lawyers for both sides to address those issues in legal memos that are due on Oct. 19. Once he receives those memos, he said, he expects to issue a ruling within four to six weeks.
That would mean the verdict would come after the Nov. 3 general election, when Mattiello faces Republican activist Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, who is married to Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung.
Procaccini said he will provide a week’s advance notice of the verdict. That will offer enough time for Britt, who now lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., to return to Rhode Island. Britt was returning to Florida and excused from appearing in court Friday.
Special Attorney General Stephen G. Dambruch made a closing statement Friday, outlining the sequence of events that began after Britt began working as a consultant for the Mattiello campaign in 2016.
He said Britt’s job involved rounding up Republican support for the Democratic speaker, and Britt considered it a “big win” when he convinced Lawton, who had lost a Republican primary to Steven Frias, to endorse Mattiello over Frias in a campaign mailer.
The defense claims the Mattiello campaign is making Britt the “fall guy." But Dambruch quoted Matthew Jerzyk, a former House lawyer and political operative, as saying the Lawton mailer was “Jeff Britt’s project” from start to finish.
“Mr. Britt, the experienced political operative, as he was described yesterday, targeted a political novice, Shawna Lawton, for his big win,” Dambruch said.
Lawton had just $43 in her campaign account, while the mailer ended up costing $2,150.
So to achieve his goal, Britt arranged for one employee, Edward Cotugno, to have his wife, Teresa Graham, cut a $1,000 check to Lawton’s campaign, and he arranged for a “financially strapped” employee, Victor Pichette, to write another $1,000 check to Lawton’s campaign, Dambruch said.
He has said that Britt’s misconduct “strikes at the heart of the electoral system and undermines the integrity of that system by replacing transparency with deception.”
Britt’s defense attorney, Robert Clark Corrente, chose not to make a final oral argument on Friday, saying he would rely on a written legal memo.
But on Thursday, Corrente made the case for dismissing the felony count, saying, “It’s dropping an atom bomb on a bug.”
Corrente also hammered away at the credibility of the prosecution’s key witness, Pichette, a semi-retired private investigator who testified that Britt handed him $1,000 in cash after asking him to make a $1,000 donation to Lawton’s campaign.
“It’s a vast understatement to call Pichette’s testimony an absolute complete disaster,” Corrente said.
For example, Pichette could not remember what bank he used, and Pichette told the grand jury that he called Britt because Britt owed him money for political work he had done, he said.
“So if it was the money owed, that is Mr. Pichette’s money, and he can do with it what he wishes,” Corrente said. “That is simply not a straw transaction.”
Also, Corrente said that Pichette had a variety of other reasons to donate money to Lawton – including the fact that he “could not stand” Frias and that he was “looking to curry favor” with Mattiello in hopes of landing a state job.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.