PROVIDENCE — Days after the news broke that signatures on her campaign’s nomination forms had been forged, Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos finally broke her silence on Friday, alleging it was a vendor — Harmony Solutions — that had attempted to “defraud” her bid for Congress.
“A vendor hired by my campaign to help collect signatures engaged in a widespread and outrageous attempt to defraud my campaign, the people of Rhode Island, and the democratic process,” said Matos in first public remarks at her campaign headquarters in Providence. “I did not ask for that. I did not need this. This doesn’t help me, nor my campaign.”
The campaign allegedly hired Harmony Solutions earlier this summer, and campaign manager Brexton Isaacs said the vendor has now been fired. The Globe searched for the company on the Secretary of State’s corporate database, but Harmony Solutions was not listed.
“We have not done anything intentional… we were victim to someone we trusted,” Matos said. “We had trust that they would act with integrity.”
While she will still be on the ballot in the primary on Sept. 5, her campaign has been at the center of a widening criminal probe that involves at least three of the 19 cities and towns in the First Congressional District. The Rhode Island State Police and the Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office have confirmed they are investigating the matter.
Election officials this week in at least three communities — Jamestown, Newport and East Providence — asked local police departments to investigate suspect signatures on nomination papers submitted by the Matos campaign.
Matos leveled her own allegations of fraud on the same day that the Rhode Island Board of Elections deliberated for nearly two hours in a closed-door executive session before voting 5 to 1 to refer all signatures submitted by Matos’ campaign to Neronha’s office for a full review and investigation. But Neronha almost immediately poured cold water on the idea that his office would comply with the request.
“It’s really unlikely,” Neronha told reporters Friday evening. “We are doing a criminal case, we are not getting involved with electoral matters.”
He said the Board of Elections had not yet reached out to him to request the review. He said the elections board is responsible for verifying signatures, as they do with mail ballots.
“This is not a lane that I should be in,” Neronha said. “I’m not really sure why they’re asking me to do this in the first place.”
Matos, who served as president of the Providence City Council until 2021, is one of 12 Democrats running to replace former congressman David Cicilline, who stepped down earlier this summer to become the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. Matos has been considered a front-runner in the race.
As of Thursday, 728 signatures submitted by the Matos campaign had been validated by local boards of canvassers and certified by the secretary of state’s office, well more than the required 500 valid signatures to qualify to be on the ballot.
Neronha said his office is leading an investigation into whether a crime has been committed during the signature gathering for the Matos campaign. He said he asked the R.I. State Police to join the probe because the case involves multiple different jurisdictions.
Matos’ campaign and Neronha seemed to have differing views into the scope of the investigations.
“Let’s be clear: My campaign is not under investigation. A vendor hired by my campaign is under investigation,” Matos said. Through his spokesman Brian Hodge late Friday night, Neronha declined to comment in a text to a Globe reporter “on the scope of our investigation.”
Neronha also declined to say whether any signature questions have come to light outside of Jamestown, Newport and East Providence. Matos said she has not personally been interviewed by the State Police or Neronha’s office.
“If they want to speak to me, they know where to find me,” said Matos.
It’s unclear if the investigation will be complete before the primary.
“We’re going to do it as fast as we can, but not on a deadline imposed by a Board of Elections entity that has no authority to impose that on me,” Neronha said.
The fraudulent signatures include the names of every member of the East Providence City Council, dead people, and people who said they never signed the nomination forms.
Jamestown was the first municipality to ask police to investigate nomination signatures. A sheet containing 17 signatures included the names of four or five dead people, in addition to people living in town who said they never signed the document. Jamestown Board of Canvassers member Ken Newman told the Globe that the handwriting for all the signatures “looks the same,” other than the last name on the list.
The problematic nomination forms were submitted by Providence resident Holly McClaren, 51, also known as Holly Cekala, and Shanna Gallagher of East Providence. The two were part-time field volunteers who gathered and submitted the signatures for Matos. McClaren was paid $15 an hour to do so, and has not responded to requests for comment.
Matos said her campaign does not “have all the details of what happened,” but said that this alleged vendor, Harmony Solutions, is owned by McClaren. Isaacs said the campaign has not spoken to McClaren, but that McClaren’s lawyer had received a letter from the campaign to terminate their relationship.
Matos campaign officials said the campaign did not have a contract with Harmony Solutions and they did not identify McClaren’s lawyer. McClaren has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Isaacs told the Globe that the company had a “good reputation” and had worked for other Democratic campaigns. When pressed for the names of candidates that this alleged company worked for, he said he could not provide names. The company did not work or volunteer for Matos’ 2022 bid for lieutenant governor, he said.
McClaren, however, did work for the campaigns of Governor Daniel J. McKee and other Democrats in the 2022 election cycle. Many Rhode Islanders will recognize her from a McKee campaign commercial that emphasized that his Republican opponent, Ashley Kalus, was not a native Rhode Islander.
In a statement to the Globe, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Gregg M. Amore’s office Faith Chybowski confirmed that the Department of State does not have a role in the investigations as the validation of individual signatures happens at the municipal level.
The potential of dozens of questionable or forged signatures on a candidate’s nomination forms may be unprecedented in Rhode Island. The staff within the State Department’s Elections Division said they “were not aware of a similar incident in recent memory,” Chybowski said.
However, “while troubling,” Secretary of State Gregg Amore told the Globe, the identification of fraudulent signatures shows “that the system is working.”
“The validation process is identifying attempts to defraud the system and the local boards of canvassers are disqualifying ineligible signatures,” said Amore on Friday. “Voters should have confidence in the processes of the local boards of canvassers, the Board of Elections, and the Rhode Island Department of State to ensure our elections are fair and secure.”
During Friday’s episode of Political Roundtable, a production of The Public’s Radio, Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said he was surprised by the errors of the Matos campaign.
”The lieutenant governor has run for office many times... These mistakes are very preventable,” said Shekarchi. “I think it’s a reflection of her staff and I think they weren’t paying attention.
“These are things you have to pay attention,” he added.
Matos fired back at questions from reporters Friday about whether she planned on dropping out of the race.
“My guiding principle in public office is I would never do anything that is going to make my parents feel ashamed for the work that I have done, or that my children would have to pay for,” said Matos.
“I’m running this campaign until then end,” said Matos.
This story has been updated with the R.I. Board of Elections vote, and comments from Attorney General Peter F. Neronha and Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos.