PROVIDENCE — A consultant for Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello’s 2016 campaign has been charged with money laundering, but no other charges are expected in the investigation, state Attorney General Peter F. Neronha announced Friday.
A statewide grand jury indicted Jeffrey T. Britt, a veteran political operative, on one felony charge of money laundering and one misdemeanor count of making a prohibited campaign contribution — by disguising a donation as coming from someone else.
Britt is accused of funneling money to a Republican candidate, Shawna Lawton, so she could put out a mailer endorsing Mattiello in his hotly contested House district against state Republican National Committeeman Steven Frias.
“Rhode Island’s election laws exist for a reason — to ensure transparency in our elections,” Neronha said at a news conference. “They exist to ensure that the public knows the true source of funds used to support political candidates. They exist to ensure that the public can judge the motivation underlying support for a particular candidate. In short, they exist to ensure the integrity of our elections.”
Britt is scheduled to appear in Superior Court in Kent County on Nov. 1.
Britt’s lawyer, former US attorney Robert Clark Corrente, issued a statement saying evidence presented at trial “will show that Mr. Britt was used by the Mattiello campaign as a fall guy.”
Britt is disappointed in the indictment but “anxious to clear his name at a public trial,” the statement said.
“We think it will become apparent that these charges should not have been brought -- and certainly not against Mr. Britt,” the statement said. “Obviously, in the sometimes sordid history of Rhode Island politics, participating with others in raising $2,100 for a campaign mailer, three years ago, is a pretty underwhelming offense.”
The Board of Elections closed the investigation with a warning to the Mattiello campaign, the statement noted.
“It certainly does not justify the state’s overcharging this petty episode as money laundering, when -- at most -- it might be a misdemeanor under Rhode Island law,” the statement said. “We are confident that the jury will see this set-up for what it is.”
Mattiello has not been accused of a crime and has repeatedly denied having knowledge of the mailer that the state Board of Elections determined was coordinated by Britt. The board issued Mattiello a warning for accepting a campaign contribution in excess of the state’s $1,000 limit last year.
Patti Doyle, spokeswoman for the Mattiello campaign, issued the following statement Friday: “These proceedings do not involve the Speaker. The Board of Elections resolved this issue for the campaign approximately one year ago.”
Frias issued his own statement countering that “Speaker Mattiello ran a campaign which engaged in criminal activity, and this criminal activity played a role in his win. He also misled the voters when he said his campaign had no involvement with the illegal mailer,” Frias wrote. “If it was me, I would be so ashamed. In fact, I find it embarrassing to be even represented by somebody like him. Why does Mattiello surround himself with criminals?”
Rhode Island Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki issued a statement, saying, “As this is sadly just the latest scandal to swirl around the Speaker and more sure to come, I think it’s incumbent on him to resign.”
During the news conference, Neronha was asked whether prosecutors found evidence that Mattiello knew what was going on with the mailer.
“For this office to bring a criminal charge, we have to have admissible evidence that the person involved in the criminal misconduct had knowledge of that misconduct,” Neronha replied. “The person with knowledge of the misconduct, based on the evidence we have, was Mr. Britt.”
So did Britt act alone without notifying anyone else in the Mattiello campaign?
“You are asking a question that is different from what my mission is,” Neronha replied. “Our mission is to determine what admissible evidence we have to charge somebody with a crime. That was the goal of our investigation. It wasn’t to engage in speculation.”
Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat often considered the most powerful person in state government, nearly lost the 2016 election, edging Frias by just 85 votes.
In the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, Mattiello received a surprising boost from Lawton, who had lost to Frias in a Republican primary: In a mailer, Lawton explained to voters why she intended to vote for Mattiello in the general election.
On Friday, Neronha described how the alleged scheme worked.
Britt met with Lawton after the primary in early October 2016, and they discussed the possibility of her endorsing Mattiello in the election and sending a mailer to voters about her endorsement, Neronha said. Later that October, Britt presented a mock-up of the mailer and offered to assist Lawton raising money to pay for it, the attorney general said.
Britt then approached a person described in the indictment as “donor one” and asked for a $1,000 contribution to Lawton’s campaign. Britt delivered the $1,000 in cash to “donor one,” who deposited the money into his personal checking account and then wrote a check of $1,000 to Lawton’s campaign, Neronha said. Lawton deposited the check into her campaign account, along with another $1,000 check delivered by Britt, the attorney general said.
Lawton then drew $2,150 from her campaign account, Neronha said, and the money was used to pay for the mailer. Lawton reported to the Board of Elections the two $1,000 contributions, listing one coming from “donor one,” Neronha said.
Brandon S. Bell, then the Rhode Island Republican Party chairman, had filed a formal complaint with the state board of elections, claiming Lawton did not properly disclose the mailer and who funded it as a so-called “independent expenditure” to benefit Mattiello.
The complaint alleged that Lawton and Mattiello engaged in “illegal coordination and consultation” because Britt met with Lawton before the mailer went out, after which she privately told others she’d been “promised” help on anti-vaccine issues in exchange for her support.
The complaint noted that Lawton had $43.34 in her campaign account after losing the primary to Frias, and it questioned how she could have paid for the $2,150 mailer. The complaint alleged that two Mattiello supporters, Teresa Graham and Victor Pichette, made donations to Lawton’s campaign so that it would appear that she alone had arranged for the mailing.
The Board of Elections ended up issuing warnings to Mattiello and Lawton after finding no evidence that they coordinated the mailer directly, but the board went on to refer Britt to the attorney general’s office for potential prosecution.
Britt did not respond to a subpoena from the Board of Elections, and Neronha emphasized that people should not feel they can ignore investigations by the board.
“This is a matter of great concern, and I want to assure the people of Rhode Island that this office and this administration will stand behind the Board of Elections in its review and investigation of election and campaign finance law violations,” Neronha said.
The indictment comes just as prosecutors were running up against a three-year statute of limitation on the felony and misdemeanor charges.