PROVIDENCE — Governor Daniel J. McKee on Tuesday denied that his chief of staff, Anthony J. Silva, tried to exert “undue influence” over a controversial wetlands development proposal in Cumberland.
McKee, a former Cumberland mayor, faced questions after WPRI-TV12 and the Providence Journal reported that text messages show Silva, a former Cumberland police chief, intervened directly with current Cumberland Mayor Jeff Mutter to try to get a lot developed although it was 93 percent wetlands.
The state Department of Environmental Management rejected an application put forward on Silva’s behalf to develop the Canning Street parcel in 2019, but reversed course this year despite local opposition. Silva has denied trying to influence DEM and claimed he transferred his interest in the property to his son, Ross Silva, to build a house. After the proposal drew media attention and litigation, the Silva family announced on Aug. 13 that it would transfer the lot to the town.
On Tuesday morning, the Rhode Island Republican Party filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission, claiming Silva violated the ethics code by failing to disclose his financial interest in the 45 Canning St. lot from 2017 through 2020.
The state GOP called for Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office to investigate whether Silva attempted to influence the Department of Environmental Management over the permit to develop the wetlands area.
“We have no confidence that weak Governor McKee, who himself was previously fined by the Ethics Commission, would undertake a thorough investigation of his chief of staff’s dubious activities,” the Republican Party stated.
In 2019, McKee paid a $250 fine to settle a complaint filed with the state Ethics Commission over his failure to disclose a trip he took to Taiwan while lieutenant governor.
During his weekly news conference on Tuesday, McKee said, “There is no information that there was undue influence at the state level, which was my main concern.”
He said he spoke to the acting director of the Department of Environmental Management, Terrence Gray. “He got back to us and said that there is nothing that he could see that would reach that level at all,” he said. “So there was no undue influence under his opinion.”
As for the GOP ethics complaint, McKee said, “That is political. They are doing their job. We are doing our job.”
McKee acknowledged Silva communicated with Mutter about the Canning Street property. But he said, “I don’t think it’s inappropriate for someone who has had an interest in a project to be talking to a local mayor. I was the mayor of Cumberland and I took those calls all the time.”
When asked if he has confidence in Silva continuing to serve as his chief of staff, McKee said, “I have full confidence in both Mayor Mutter and Tony Silva.”
McKee said Mutter told him about the town’s opposition to the proposed development. “In the end,” he said, “I think the Silvas got it right. They are going to donate the land. There is no personal gain there at all.”
McKee said, “My main issue right now is to make sure that anybody that works in our office doesn’t use undue influence with state agencies that I manage.” And he reiterated that he had found no evidence that Silva had exerted “undue influence” in this case.
The controversy has already drawn criticism from one of McKee’s opponents in 2022 governor’s race.
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, a Democrat who announced her candidacy in May, tweeted about the matter, saying, “What did Governor McKee know about this and when did he know it? It is unacceptable for local government to be pressured by those in power for private gain.”
Meanwhile, on Monday, Rhode Island Senate Republicans challenged McKee’s decision to declare a state of emergency through Sept. 18 because of new COVID variants, calling that action “executive overreach.” McKee responded on Tuesday, saying, “I call it keeping people safe in the State of Rhode Island.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.