PROVIDENCE — As one of the highest-ranking employees in city and state government over the last five years, it has been Brett Smiley’s job to put out fires or stop them before they ignite.
When he served as Providence’s chief operating officer, that meant negotiating the city budget with prickly City Council members and navigating bitter battles with public employee unions. Since becoming Governor Gina Raimondo’s chief of staff in 2016, he’s been in charge of advancing his boss’s agenda and serving as a liaison to the business community.
In both roles, Smiley has often been the person tasked with delivering bad news: That deal can’t move forward. This employee has to go. That bill is going to die in the Legislature.
He’s the guy who says no. A lot.
Now the 40-year-old Smiley, who has political ambitions of his own, is accused of crossing the line by threatening a top Twin River executive. Smiley was allegedly trying to persuade the casino to not oppose a proposed 20-year, no-bid contract extension for one of its rivals, IGT, to run the Rhode Island lottery and operate most video lottery terminals at the state’s two casinos.
“He asked me not to go scorched earth and oppose the deal,” Marc Crisafulli, Twin River’s executive vice president, wrote in a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Conley on Wednesday.
During a June phone call, Crisafulli claims Smiley warned him that the Twin River could face regulatory problems if the company fought the highly contentious contract proposal for IGT. Twin River waged a public relations and lobbying campaign opposing the deal anyway, and later was forced to pay a $180,000 fine to the state taking on too much debt from a series of transactions in 2019.
“Mr. Smiley’s message was crystal clear: If Twin River opposed the IGT legislation, which was being introduced that day, we would suffer regulatory consequences with the state,” Crisafulli wrote.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Smiley said he made a “courtesy call” to Crisafulli to discuss the IGT contract but claimed he “never once made a threat.”
“He was not happy with that news and it was a tense call,” Smiley said. “I also told him the state’s broader relationship with Twin River is important and I hope we’ll find other ways to help them grow their business.”
Crisafulli’s letter comes as Twin River and IGT have engaged in an advertising blitz across Rhode Island media in effort to influence the General Assembly, which is required to sign off on the billion-dollar lottery deal. Twin River officials have said they want to partner with outside companies to bid on the contract, while IGT leaders say the deal will keep 1,000 high-paying jobs in the state.
In recent weeks, Raimondo has appeared personally before the House and Senate finance committees, which are vetting the proposal, to lobby them to approve the contract extension. Legislative leaders have hinted that they are unlikely to vote on the deal before the end of the year.
Smiley has not been the governor’s go-to aide on the lottery deal, but the explosive accusation made against him has vaulted him into a spotlight after years of operating behind the scenes in government.
Although he grew up and attended college in Illinois, Smiley came of age in politics when he moved to Rhode Island in 2006 to run then-Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty’s campaign for governor against incumbent Republican Donald Carcieri. Fogarty lost the race by fewer than 8,000 votes.
In 2007, he launched Campaign Finance Officers, a political consulting firm that specializes in compliance around state and federal campaign finance laws for candidates across the country and assists them with raising money. Since taking jobs under Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and Raimondo, Smiley has maintained that he does not draw a salary from the company. But he has repeatedly listed his role as a partner for the company, now called CFO Compliance, on his annual financial disclosure with the state.
Smiley raised hundreds of thousands of dollars during his own run for mayor of Providence in 2014, pitching himself as a problem-solver in a city with deep financial challenges. He made national headlines by appearing in a campaign commercial with his husband, James DeRentis, but he dropped out of the race to back Elorza in order to block controversial former mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. from returning to City Hall.
Elorza made Smiley his chief operating officer, a role that allowed Smiley to function as a deputy mayor. Smiley has not been shy about his plans to run for mayor again in 2022 when Elorza is term-limited.
Smiley became Raimondo’s chief of staff in 2016 and has largely maintained a good relationship with state lawmakers while overseeing the governor’s senior aides. He has mostly kept a low profile in public, although he delivered remarks during Elorza’s second inauguration in January and recently spoke in place of Raimondo at the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council’s annual dinner.
Smiley has never been accused of wrongdoing, but his sharp tongue and dry wit has come under scrutiny in the past. In a 2015 television interview to discuss Providence’s strict parking ban during a snowstorm, he suggested that people without parking spots in Providence could “hang out with friends in the suburbs,” drawing criticism that he was out of touch with city residents.
Critics of Raimondo quickly pounced on the Smiley incident Wednesday after Crisafulli released his letter.
Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Cienki called for the House and Senate to investigate Smiley, and called on the governor to fire him if Crisafulli produces evidence of the threat.
“This is a serious allegation which needs to be investigated,” Cienki said in a statement. “It is inappropriate for a Rhode Island government official to threaten consequences to any business or person who chooses to exercise their First Amendment rights by expressing an opinion on legislation.”
In a statement, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said his chamber is “deeply troubled” by the alleged threat.
“The regulatory system in Rhode Island has been seen as a barrier to business and economic development for many years,” Mattiello said. “Political threats of retaliation at the highest level of government coming directly from the governor’s office should not be tolerated.”
But Senate President Dominick Ruggerio called for Twin River, the state, and IGT to let cooler heads prevail.
“We need to stop the finger-pointing and work together to find an amicable resolution for all parties for the benefit of the people of Rhode Island,” Ruggerio said.