By the end of his 2016 campaign for state representative, Steven Frias was fed up with the dirty tricks and questionable tactics he was up against as he challenged the man widely viewed as the most powerful politician in Rhode Island, Democratic House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello.
Frias, a Republican, had been involved in local politics for more than two decades, so he understood that muddying up your opponent was just part of the game. But he felt Mattiello and his supporters had crossed the line.
At one point, a well-known local pizza shop owner went around House District 15 falsely accusing Frias of not actually living in Cranston, a damaging claim in a tight-knit community that, if true, would have disqualified Frias from running for the seat. In another instance, Frias' wife was brought to tears when Democrats claimed Frias helped her land a plum job as an attorney for the state’s Public Utilities Commission.
“I used to joke with people, ‘Are you sure you want to be seen with me? Because the speaker could be watching.’” Frias recalled in an interview last week.
Turns out, even that was true.
Last week’s criminal trial of former Mattiello campaign consultant Jeffrey T. Britt was meant to determine whether Britt laundered $2,000 to help pay for a postcard mailer designed to boost Mattiello during that 2016 campaign. But it also offered a rare glimpse into the win-at-all-costs culture of politics, as witness after witness detailed the strategies employed to help defeat Frias.
Those tactics included surveillance conducted on Frias by a semi-retired private investigator who was seeking a state job, a mail-ballot operation run by a veteran operative who had previous tours of political duty with some of the state’s most corrupt politicians, and the mailer that Britt orchestrated to try to convince a handful of Republicans to back the Democrat in the race.
In the end, Mattiello won the race by 85 votes, a razor-thin margin where almost any maneuver could have tipped the scales in the speaker’s favor.
Now, with early voting scheduled to begin Wednesday, Mattiello’s back is against the wall again as he faces a serious challenge from Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, the Republican wife of Cranston’s popular mayor, who is eager to capitalize on the seedy details that came out during last week’s trial.
But Mattiello, who was never charged, testified that he knew nothing about the controversial mailer until it hit mailboxes in his district, and a key campaign aide described the mailer as “Jeff Britt’s project.”
The judge has said he won’t issue a ruling for five to seven weeks. So that means voters will render their decision first, in the Nov. 3 general election.
“I think it clearly crossed a line,” Providence College political science professor Adam Myers said of Mattiello’s campaign operation in 2016. “But the question is whether the public’s opinion of Rhode Island politics is already so jaded that coverage of the trial won’t change any minds.”
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If it’s possible for the most powerful politician in the state to be an underdog in his own backyard, hindsight suggests that’s where Mattiello - the man whose rock-solid support within the Rhode Island House of Representatives gives him almost dictatorial power over any piece of legislation - was sitting four years ago.
House District 15 includes fewer than 11,000 registered voters, the majority of whom are unaffiliated but are considered far more conservative than residents of the rest of Cranston and almost every other city in the state. Mattiello frequently draws criticism from more liberal members of his party, but his political values – pro-business, pro-life, pro-National Rifle Association – are largely in line with the voters who have sent him back to the State House every two years since 2007.
But in 2016, simply being a conservative Democrat wasn’t going to be enough to guarantee Mattiello a victory. Cranston’s Republican Mayor, Allan W. Fung, would roll to reelection. And while Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton would easily win Cranston and the state, Donald Trump won District 15 by 15 percentage points. Mattiello was up against a Republican tidal wave.
He faced other challenges, too.
During the Britt trial, Mattiello testified that because he was the House speaker, he felt like he was running for statewide office instead of trying to win his own tiny district. That triggered increased media scrutiny of the people he associated with and the decisions he was making.
He was the elected speaker in 2014 after serving as the No. 2 to Gordon Fox, who resigned the leadership post after an FBI raid of the State House. (Fox later served more than two years in federal prison for accepting a bribe.) In the years that followed, Mattiello watched as both his House Finance Committee chairman and vice chairman faced their own unrelated legal troubles that would ultimately lead to criminal sentences and the end of their political careers.
In Frias, the Republicans had an ideal candidate to take on Mattiello, and potentially give the GOP its biggest victory in Rhode Island since Donald Carcieri won a second term as governor in 2006. An attorney who was known for writing long essays about Rhode Island politics for various publications, Frias was also the state’s Republican national committeeman, which gave him the name recognition to raise enough money to run a competitive race.
So Mattiello’s campaign went to work.
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Although it was Frias who received all the attention for taking on the speaker, it was his little-known Republican primary opponent who caught the eye of Britt, a veteran political operative who had been hired by the Mattiello campaign to round up Republican support for the speaker.
Shawna Lawton had never run for office before, but she took an interest in politics after she became concerned about a state-mandated human papillomavirus vaccination for students.
Victor Pichette -- a semi-retired private detective who then was looking for a job after a heart attack and a divorce -- testified that he attended a fund-raiser for Lawton, snapping photos of those in attendance and the sign-in sheet and sending them to Britt, who was already working on the Mattiello campaign.
Britt was already a storied figure in Rhode Island politics by 2016, having run two nasty campaigns against previous House speakers and playing a behind-the-scenes role in both the 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial races. During his trial, at least two witnesses testified that he was brought on to the Mattiello campaign to help win Republican support for the speaker, but Mattiello acknowledged he had other motives as well.
“I asked him to work on my 2018 campaign for the exact same reason I asked him to work on my 2016 campaign,” Mattiello testified during the trial. “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.”
After Frias trounced Lawton in the primary, Britt took a larger interest in the losing candidate. Prosecutors said that on Oct. 5, 2016 Britt exchanged text messages with Mattiello’s chief of staff, Leo Skenyon, and others, pointing out that Lawton had posted an anti-Frias message on her Facebook page.
Lawton testified that the two exchanged direct message on Twitter, and then met in person at the B. Good restaurant in Garden City, where Britt explained that she and Mattiello agreed on many issues, including their opposition to providing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Britt convinced Lawton to send a mailer to Republican voters endorsing Mattiello, which led to Britt being charged with money laundering for allegedly paying Pichette and Edward Cotugno, a mail ballot expert who worked on Mattiello’s campaign, $1,000 each to donate to Lawton to cover the cost of the mailer. Cotugno testified that Britt and Jerzyk conferred and Britt suggested that Cotugno’s wife make the donation; she did.
When asked about the mailer during a debate in 2016, Mattiello said he came to the conclusion “nobody on my campaign has any knowledge of that issue.” His story changed during last week’s trial, when he admitted that he yelled at Leo Skenyon, his chief of staff and a top campaign volunteer, because “I thought it was going to hurt my campaign in the last days of the campaign.”
The campaign’s scheming against Frias didn’t end there.
Testifying with immunity from prosecution, Pichette disclosed that he developed several opposition research binders on Frias and also conducted surveillance on the candidate. He said he monitored Frias' home to see who was coming and going - a rare tactic in local campaigns.
Frias, who was not called to testify in the trial, said he always had a feeling he was being watched during the campaign, but Pichette’s testimony was the first time it had been confirmed. He recalled seeing a man watching him from a car while he knocked on doors in one neighborhood, and then he watched the man drive off when he attempted to approach the car.
“I consider it low-life behavior and they were doing it because they were desperate to hold on to power and the jobs and money that go along with that power,” Frias said.
To be sure, that power was on full display during the 2016 campaign.
An army of State House workers whose jobs were largely controlled by Mattiello ended up volunteering for the speaker’s reelection bid, and Skenyon and Jerzyk, two of Mattiello’s top advisors in the House, were essentially in charge of the campaign.
During last week’s trial, prosecutor Stephen G. Dambruch noted the Mattiello campaign spent nearly $200,000 that year, describing it as “an all-hands-on-deck type of effort.”
“It was a very tough campaign,” Skenyon testified. “It was an all-out effort.”
Skenyon said he expected Britt to help the campaign as a consultant. But, he said, “His stake in it wasn’t like mine.”
Jerzyk, a former State House lawyer and political operative, testified that the campaign was pumping out dozens of mailers -- so many that voters in the district began complaining.
“It was a chaotic and fast-moving campaign,” Jerzyk said.
Mattiello testified that he thought it was going to be a difficult election. But, he said, “I didn’t think it was going to be as close as it was. And quite frankly, it was such a mismanaged campaign, that that’s what made it close.”
Mattiello suggested he would have won by a larger margin if he had run a “standard campaign” -- without “all of the drama.”
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But there was plenty of drama.
When the polls closed, Frias was clinging to a slim lead. But when the mail ballots were counted, Mattiello eked out an 85-vote victory. His campaign paid Britt a $10,000 bonus for the victory.
During last week’s trial, Cotugno, the state’s mail-ballot guru, claimed credit. “Henceforth the name,” he said of his company, Winning Ways.
In response to questions from prosecutors, Cotugno said he had been rounding up mail ballots for candidates in Rhode Island since the 1970s. He rattled off a who’s-who list of past clients -- including former Providence mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., who ended up going to federal prison, and former governor Edward D. DiPrete, who went to state prison.
Cotugno testified that Britt asked him to help Mattiello’s campaign, and Britt paid him $400 to $700 a week, plus expenses.
Cotugno said he didn’t know when he first heard about the controversy over the Lawton mailer, which was paid for in part by a $1,000 check from his wife, Teresa Graham.
But, he said, “Obviously, the (expletive) hit the fan at one point in time, and then everybody was like scurrying around.”
He noted the state Republican Party filed a complaint, the Board of Elections sent letters to the Mattiello and Lawton campaigns, and the controversy was all over the news.
“Lo and behold, my family did write a check for $1,000 behind that mailer,” Cotugno said. But, he said, “I didn’t see anything wrong with it in the first place -- I don’t see anything wrong with the check today.”
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Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Procaccini will have the final say about whether the alleged scheme to fund the Lawton mailer amounted to felony money laundering or simply was a prohibited campaign contribution, a misdemeanor.
But the voters of House District 15 are likely to determine Mattiello’s political fate before that verdict is rendered.
Fenton-Fung, Mattiello’s Republican challenger, has spent the past several months attacking the speaker with mailers and negative online videos.
Myers, the Providence College professor, said the likelihood that Trump will perform worse in Rhode Island – even in District 15 – than he did four years ago might give Mattiello “fewer coattails to overcome.” But with more voters aware of the Britt scandal, it’s possible that Republican-leaning voters may have had enough of the speaker, he said.
For his part, Mattiello still has a financial advantage in the race, having already spent more than $150,000 on the campaign. He doesn’t have Britt working on the campaign, but Skenyon remains a top adviser and Cotugno is still hustling on the mail ballots.
Frias, who is supporting Fenton-Fung this time around, said he learned a lot about the 2016 campaign from the trial.
One factor in particular can’t be discounted.
“For me, I’m trying to make an impact and change things,” Frias said. “For these people, this is their world.”