PROVIDENCE — Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office on Wednesday cleared Governor Daniel J. McKee’s former chief of staff, Anthony J. Silva, of criminal activity but castigated him for exercising “very poor judgment in involving himself in a personal matter before a state regulatory agency.”
Silva, a former Cumberland police chief, stepped down as chief of staff in August 2021 amid scrutiny of whether he attempted to influence the state Department of Environmental Management over a permit to develop a piece of land in Cumberland that is 93 percent wetlands. DEM rejected an application put forward on Silva’s behalf to develop the Canning Street parcel in 2019, but the agency reversed course despite local opposition.
The investigation found Silva frequently contacted DEM and Cumberland officials to try to advance the approval process. “Mr. Silva’s conduct can be fairly characterized as persistent, and then some,” the report said. “He seemingly threw his weight around or tried to.”
But the investigation found no evidence of bribery or extortion, the report said.
“None of the witnesses involved in the DEM regulatory approval process told the investigative team, and no other evidence was developed, that Mr. Silva offered anything of value to secure DEM approval for this project,” the document said. “Nor did any DEM official or employee tell the investigative team that Mr. Silva expressly or implicitly threatened them in an effort to secure DEM approval.”
The investigation also concluded that Silva’s actions did not constitute a criminal violation of the state ethics code, although the report called that a “somewhat closer question.”
The ethics code prohibits conflicts of interest, and a government official violates that ban when he has a personal matter before a government agency, he has authority over the agency, and he uses that power to affect the outcome of the agency’s decision.
“The official authority — and hence the ability to direct the outcome — is what is missing here,” the report said. “At the time of his communications with DEM officials, Mr. Silva was chief of staff to the lieutenant governor, as opposed to the governor, and he, thus, had no express or implied authority or ability to direct that agency to take any particular action, as a criminal violation of the Ethics Code requires.”
Silva served as chief of staff to McKee when McKee was lieutenant governor. McKee became governor in March 2021, when former governor Gina M. Raimondo became US Commerce secretary.
Also, Silva’s communication with Cumberland officials didn’t violate the ethics code because he didn’t hold a position with the town that dealt with the permitting process. But the report characterized Silva’s interaction with town officials “heavy-handed in some instances and certainly ill-advised in others.”
The attorney general’s office said the report could have ended with the conclusion that Silva committed no crimes.
“Yet, having completed an in-depth investigation and legal analysis over many months, we believe that Rhode Islanders are entitled to the full weight of this office’s opinion about what transpired here,” the report said. “And so we add that from our vantage point, Mr. Silva exercised very poor judgment in involving himself in a personal matter before a state regulatory agency while serving as a high-ranking state official, whether he had official authority over that state agency or not.”
This case underscores why public officials “should take great care when entangling their public positions with their personal business,” the report said.
“When high-ranking public officials like Mr. Silva, who by virtue of their public office have a voice or footprint that everyday Rhode Islanders do not, seek to capitalize on their insider access, Rhode Islanders lose,” Neronha’s office said. “They lose because the regulatory playing field is no longer even. They lose because the professionalism of a government agency is threatened. They lose because public confidence in government is undermined.”
Such conduct might not rise to the level of a crime, the report said. “But plainly, it is best avoided, and it should have been avoided by Mr. Silva here.”
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.
On Aug. 24, 2021, McKee, a Democrat and former mayor of Cumberland, denied that his chief of staff tried to exert “undue influence” over the controversial proposal. But the state Republican Party called for the attorney general’s office to investigate the matter, and McKee ended up asking Neronha to conduct an independent investigation of Silva.
On Aug. 30, 2021, McKee confirmed that Silva was stepping down. “Right now, his situation is a distraction from the critical work we have ahead,” he said at the time.
On Wednesday, McKee spokeswoman Andrea Palagi issued a statement, saying, “The attorney general confirmed what Governor McKee has said from the beginning — the governor had no involvement in this matter and no laws were broken. Additionally, the report confirms that the Department of Environmental Management followed their normal procedures and did their job properly.”
Palagi noted McKee requested the investigation. “Based on this report, the people of Rhode Island should have full confidence in how both the governor and the Department of Environmental Management conduct state business,” she said.
Rhode Island Republican Party chairwoman Sue Cienki responded to the report, saying, “Yet another political decision by the attorney general. Yawn.”
McKee should stop taking credit for asking for the investigation since the request came after the GOP pressured him, she said. “And don’t say everything is copacetic when it is not. Even the attorney general says it’s poor judgment.”
Former CVS executive Helena B. Foulkes, a Democratic candidate for governor, issued a statement in response to the report blasting McKee.
“It’s no surprise that Dan McKee is the least popular governor in America — his tenure has brought Rhode Island back to the old days of backroom deals and insider access,” she said. “Rhode Islanders deserve more from their governor than FBI and attorney general investigations. They deserve a governor who will get big things done for our state, not their friends.”
Another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, also weighed in.
“Rhode Island needs to stop making national headlines for all the wrong reasons,” Gorbea campaign manager Dana Walton said. “The attorney general’s report clearly found inappropriate behavior by the governor’s chief of staff; it found that he did ‘throw his weight around’ for personal benefit. He may not have broken a law, but he undermined the people’s trust in their government. We need to change this culture of ‘Do you know who I am?’ in Rhode Island government.”
McKee’s campaign responded, saying, “We know Nellie and Helena are disappointed that once again they’ve swung for the fences and struck out. While they will still try to make false statements and smear the governor, he will continue to lead like he has from day one.”
Former secretary of state Matt Brown, a Democratic candidate for governor, also criticized McKee.
“Rhode Islanders are sick of seeing public officials use their positions of power for their personal gain,” he said. “The attorney general’s finding that Tony Silva acted ‘improperly’ is just one example of how the McKee administration consistently works to use the governor’s office to benefit their friends and allies.”
Brown noted the FBI is investigating a controversial multimillion-dollar contract that McKee’s administration awarded to ILO Group, a consulting firm that formed two days after McKee took office. “We need leaders who will work for all Rhode Islanders instead of the wealthy and well-connected,” he said. “We need a whole new government.”
Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, cited the report’s conclusion that Silva “seemingly threw his weight around or tried to.”
“Insiders are too often given a pass on coercive tactics,” he said. “The poor behavior observed and tolerated by this administration has been observed and tolerated for far too long across Rhode Island’s political landscape. To change course for the better, we must bid farewell to insiders who adhere to the rules of an outdated and old guard, which has weighed down on the working and marginalized in Rhode Island. Change must come.”
Read the full report, interview transcripts and email records at riag.ri.gov/silva.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.