PROVIDENCE — As he was out campaigning on the east side of Providence one summer day in 2012, Mark Binder received a call from someone promising to boost his longshot independent bid to take out Gordon Fox, who at the time was the speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives.
On the line was Jeffrey Britt, a political operative whose friendship with Fox had deteriorated over the years. Britt was cold-calling Binder with an offer to run his campaign.
“He told me that he hated Gordon Fox and wanted to screw him,” Binder recalled in a telephone interview Friday.
Binder lost the race, but the bare-knuckled campaign cemented Britt’s status as a force to be reckoned with in Rhode Island politics. In the years that followed, he’d be a hired gun for two gubernatorial campaigns, as well as House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s close reelection win in 2016.
Britt’s reputation as a tactician who is willing to blur ethical lines to help his candidates came into sharp focus Friday when a state grand jury handed down a two-count indictment charging him with money laundering and making a prohibited campaign contribution to benefit Mattiello during the 2016 race.
Britt, 51, is accused of illegally funneling $2,000 to a Republican candidate, Shawna Lawton, so she could put out a mailer endorsing Mattiello at the time. Lawton had lost a primary to Steven Frias, and Britt allegedly coordinated with her to support the Democratic leader in the general election.
Former US attorney Robert Corrente, who is representing Britt, issued a statement Friday claiming the indictment “unfairly singles out” his client.
“We believe that the evidence at trial will leave Rhode Islanders scratching their heads about who did and who did not get charged, and will show that Mr. Britt was used by the Mattiello campaign as a fall guy,” Corrente said.
A spokesperson for Mattiello said Friday the charges against Britt “do not involve the speaker.” Mattiello previously received a warning from the state board of elections for accepting a campaign contribution that was in excess of the $1,000 individual limit allowed under state law.
But while politicians and associates seek to distance themselves from Britt following the indictment, the record shows Britt has been tied to some of the state’s most powerful leaders for nearly two decades.
Britt made a fortune as an investment banker — he paid more than $900,000 for a home in Warwick in 2008 and now lives in Florida — but he got his start in local politics for family reasons: In 2002, he ran his stepfather Bruce Bayuk’s write-in campaign that nearly knocked off then-House Speaker John Harwood.
From there, Britt would forge a relationship with Republican Governor Don Carcieri, helping to unite what he called dissident Democrats against House leadership between 2003 and 2010. He worked behind the scenes to support Democrat Frank Caprio’s unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2010, before assisting Binder in 2012, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block in 2014, Mattiello in 2016, and incumbent Governor Gina Raimondo last year.
During that time, Britt became known as an operative willing to do whatever it takes to support his clients, often by supplying a network of local journalists with copious amounts of opposition research that was designed to embarrass the other side. In 2010, he famously attempted to link then-gubernatorial candidate Lincoln Chafee to a Ukrainian oligarch with a questionable history.
“Jeff Britt has a way to put together pieces of facts that creates emotion from news reporters,” Binder said.
While running Binder’s campaign in 2012, Britt was so feared by aides to Fox that some begged at least one reporter not be named in stories about the race because they didn’t want Britt to know they were involved. But Binder also credited Britt’s relentless tactics to garner attention with making the race competitive.
Fox spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the race but was forced from office two years later after the FBI raided the State House. Fox later admitted to accepting a bribe and served more than two years in federal prison.
Block, whose 2014 campaign for governor was managed by Britt, called him “one of the most driven people” he’s ever encountered. Because he largely self-funded his race, Block said he avoided relying on Britt as a fund-raiser and didn’t feel pressured to take his advice. But he called Britt’s work ethic his most valuable asset.
“If he wants a cup of coffee and there’s five people ahead of him, he’s going to find a way to get that cup of coffee,” Block said.
Britt returned to the Democratic side for the 2016 race, serving as one of Mattiello’s most trusted advisers on the campaign. Mattiello won his race by 85 votes and remains the speaker now. He and Britt had a falling out before last year’s campaign, and Britt moved on, fielding offers from multiple gubernatorial campaigns seeking his services. He ended up working with Raimondo, who easily won reelection.
A spokesperson for Raimondo declined to comment on her campaign’s relationship with Britt Friday.
Although many of Britt’s closest friends and clients were tight-lipped following the indictment, Binder said Britt was always upfront about the strategies he used during this race. He said their partnership was mutually beneficial.
“I knew exactly what I was getting into,” Binder said. “I knew he was using me and I was using him.”