PROVIDENCE — Less than a week after Governor Daniel J. McKee asked the attorney general to conduct an independent investigation of his own chief of staff, Anthony J. Silva, the governor’s office confirmed Monday morning that Silva has stepped down.
“Right now, his situation is a distraction from the critical work we have ahead,” said McKee in a statement sent by his office. “I appreciate that Tony understands the need to remove the distraction to ensure we can continue serving Rhode Islanders effectively.”
Senior deputy chief of staff Antonio Afonso Jr. will take Silva’s place as the governor’s chief of staff effective immediately.
The attorney general’s office is investigating whether Silva, a former Cumberland police chief, attempted to influence the state Department of Environmental Management over a permit to develop a piece of land that is 93 percent wetlands. Silva had allegedly met with current Cumberland mayor, Jeff Mutter, to push for development of the plot at 45 Canning St. in Cumberland.
The Department of Environmental Management rejected an application put forward on Silva’s behalf to develop the Canning Street parcel in 2019, but the agency reversed course this year despite local opposition.
As previously reported, Silva denied trying to influence DEM and claimed that 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 that it would transfer the lot to the town.
At first, McKee, a Democrat and former mayor of Cumberland, denied that his chief of staff tried to exert “undue influence” over the controversial proposal. But on Monday, McKee announced that he and Silva reached a “mutual agreement” that it was in the “best interest of the administration” for him to retire from state government effective immediately.
Silva has held several jobs in state and municipal agencies, including Cumberland deputy emergency management director, director of the Rhode Island Municipal Police Academy, administrator of the state department of motor vehicles, and McKee’s chief of staff as lieutenant governor and now as governor.
The governor had been facing mounting pressure from the state Republican Party, who had called for the Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office to get involved.
On Wednesday, Neronha’s spokesman Blake Collins told the Globe that Neronha, also a Democrat, had spoken with McKee and State Police Colonel James M. Manni.
“This Office and the Rhode Island State Police are initiating an investigation of the matter of Tony Silva and the proposed development in Cumberland,” Collins said at the time. “There are no limits to the scope of the investigation, and the scope of any investigation by this office is determined by the Attorney General.”
However, the governor’s new chief of staff also has history in Cumberland. A prominent attorney, Afonso and his former law firm, Moses Afonso Ryan, had reached a settlement with the state in the lawsuit over 38 studios in 2014, having to pay $4.37 million due to their work on the $75 million in state-backed bonds that were sold to benefit Curt Schilling’s video-game company.
The settlement had come after the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, now known as R.I. Commerce Corporation, sued 14 individuals, law firms, and financial institutions in Superior Court in late 2012, which was a few months after Schilling’s video-game company filed bankruptcy.
Afonso also served as bond counsel to the EDC on the deal.
Afonso and his wife have been among McKee’s biggest campaign donors over the years. According to the state Board of Elections, Rita T. Afonso has contributed $7,875 and Antonio J. Afonso has contributed $5,500 to McKee’s campaigns.
Rhode Island Republican Party chairwoman Sue Cienki said Silva’s departure shows McKee is “weak, very weak, and consistently changes his position.“
Cienki accused McKee of changing his mind about climate change legislation and face mask requirements for school children and teachers. And she noted that one day after saying Silva exerted “no undue influence” in the Cumberland wetlands case, McKee asked the attorney general to investigate, and now Silva is out the door.
“He has shown tolerance for unethical behavior, and he caves to political pressure,” Cienki said. And his new chief of staff, Afonso, “was embroiled in one of the worst controversies in state history, 38 Studios,” she said.
Also, Cienki said, “I want to let the governor know he is allowed to hire someone outside of Cumberland for his staff.”
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, a Democrat who has announced that she is running for governor in 2022, tweeted on Monday: “It is unacceptable for local government to be pressured by those in power for private gain. Mr. Silva stepping down is the right call for the state. Still – what did the Governor know? When did he know it?”
Also, she said, “Our state’s well-being and future growth depend on Rhode Island moving beyond this type of ‘I know a guy’ politics.”
Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, who has announced he will run for governor in 2022 as a Democrat, tweeted: “It’s time to end #cronyism in #RhodeIsland. It’s time to vote out any politicians who have perpetuated the political #game, which has enabled cronyism.”
Silva’s departure will not end the investigation by the attorney general’s office, spokeswoman Kristy dosReis said Monday. “It is unaffected,” she said of the probe. “It is ongoing.”