PROVIDENCE — Faced with a stiff campaign challenge from a Republican in 2016, Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello pulled out all the stops to hold on to his seat representing District 15 in conservative western Cranston.
The Democratic leader promised voters he’d eliminate the state’s dreaded car tax at a cost of more than $200 million if they sent him back to the State House. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the campaign while tapping a volunteer army of state employees and political operatives to help get out the vote.
And three weeks before the election, with Mattiello still on the ropes, his campaign had one last trick up its sleeve: an endorsement from Shawna Lawton, a little-known Republican who lost a primary to Mattiello’s general election opponent Steven Frias a month earlier. The campaign would mail the endorsement to thousands of voters in the district.
Mattiello squeaked past Frias by 85 votes, and then he easily retained the speakership in January 2017. He beat Frias by a more comfortable margin last year, and has said he wants to continue leading the House of Representatives for many years to come.
But the details surrounding the 2016 endorsement mailer — including who paid for it and how it was arranged — have haunted Mattiello ever since. The state Board of Elections had enough questions that it forwarded the case to the attorney general’s office, and now a grand jury has been convened to review whether anyone from Mattiello’s campaign broke the law.
Mattiello has not been charged with a crime, nor has any law enforcement authority said he is under investigation. But his campaign’s connection to the investigation has thrust another Rhode Island House speaker into a negative spotlight.
Mattiello became speaker in 2014 following the resignation of Gordon Fox, a Providence Democrat who later served more than two years in federal prison for accepting a bribe.
Shortly after WPRI first reported Tuesday evening that a grand jury was meeting on the case, Mattiello spokesperson Patti Doyle said the speaker had already resolved the matter with the Board of Elections, which issued him a warning for accepting a campaign contribution that exceeded state’s allowable annual limits.
“We don’t intend to look backwards at past campaigns but instead, remain focused on issues of import today,” Doyle said in a statement Wednesday. “As we stated last night, the Board of Elections resolved this issue for the campaign more than one year ago. We repeat — we have no knowledge of or involvement in this issue.”
Kristy dosReis, a spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Neronha, declined to comment on the grand jury but said the investigation remains open.
It’s not clear whether there is a specific target for the grand jury, but former US attorney Robert Corrente confirmed to the Globe that he is representing Jeff Britt, a veteran political operative who worked on Mattiello’s campaign in 2016. He said Britt has not been asked to appear before the grand jury.
Britt was among Mattiello’s most trusted aides during the 2016 campaign, digging up opposition research against Frias, overseeing the speaker’s mail ballot operation, and mapping out a path to reelection.
The endorsement mailer was the brainchild of Britt and was executed by Matthew Jerzyk, an attorney and veteran campaign operative, a Board of Elections investigation later found.
It is not a crime to send a damaging mailer to voters weeks before an election, but the state Republican Party filed a complaint with the board in October 2016 accusing Mattiello’s campaign of illegally coordinating with Lawton on the mailer. The party claimed the $2,150 that was spent on the mailer was an in-kind contribution from Lawton that exceeded the state’s $1,000 annual limit on donations.
The board later learned that Lawton received $1,000 each from two Mattiello-affiliated donors to pay for the mailer. In the end, it voted to issue warnings to Mattiello and Lawton. Believing Britt was the mastermind behind the mailer, the board referred him to the attorney general’s office for potential prosecution.
Britt, a former investment banker who grew up in Rhode Island and now lives in Florida, is known as ruthless tactician when it comes to politics. He has worked for Democrats, Republicans, and independents over the last decade, including Mattiello, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block, and Governor Gina Raimondo, a Democrat. He is so feared in some political circles that candidates are known to hire him just to avoid having him as an opponent.
Since the 2016 election, Britt has had little involvement with Mattiello’s campaign, including his reelection victory over Frias last year.
Republicans were quick to pounce on the investigation Wednesday. Party chairwoman Sue Cienki praised Neronha for convening a grand jury, while accusing Mattiello of lying about his involvement of the mailer.
“We hope the grand jury investigation ends the coverup,” Cienki said.
Frias said he’s confident the mailer created confusion among Republican voters in 2016, helping Mattiello secure the victory.
“You lose by 85 votes and you can come up with 85 different reasons as to what made a difference, but obviously, the mailer probably was a factor,” Frias said.