CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – The Rhode Island Republican Party is crying foul after a taxpayer-funded grant landed House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s name on the jerseys of young hockey players in his hometown.
The controversy bubbled up after WPRO host John DePetro posted a photo Tuesday of a shirt from the Edgewood Rhode Island Hockey Association of Cranston that said “Speaker Nick Mattiello” on it. GOP Chairman Brandon Bell quickly took the opportunity to criticize Mattiello and renew Republicans’ longstanding critique of the General Assembly’s legislative grants program.
“Mr. Speaker if you are looking to make a name for yourself there are better ways to do it,” Bell said in a statement Wednesday, suggesting Mattiello should instead order an independent investigation into 38 Studios, fund bridge repairs without tolling trucks, or keep former lawmakers from getting state positions.
“Don’t be the sad politician known for using taxpayer money to make children wear his name on their hockey jerseys,” Bell said.
House spokesman Larry Berman confirmed that Mattiello, D-Cranston, awarded a $2,500 legislative grant to the Edgewood hockey group in June after the organization applied for funds “to significantly reduce the ice time cost for the participants in the youth program.”
“The grateful association board members took it upon themselves, when printing this year’s shirts for the Learn to Skate program, to place his name at the bottom of the shirt,” Berman told WPRI.com.
In a statement, Mattiello defended the grant. “I had no knowledge they were putting my name on the shirts and had they asked, I would have told them not to do so,” he said. “This is simply a case of political detractors being petty.”
“I am pleased to provide grants to youth sports in Cranston and throughout the state and will continue to support such worthwhile endeavors,” he added.
Shortly after Mattiello issued his statement, the hockey group announced it would issue new shirts that do not include Mattiello’s name.
“After we received our grant, the Board decided to print Speaker Mattiello’s name on the back of the Learn to Skate jerseys that we hand out to all players that participate in our beginner program,” Andrew Giuliano, the group’s president, wrote in a statement provided by the speaker’s office.
“Our intention was not to offend any families nor break any laws, but rather offer our gratitude to Speaker Mattiello’s support for our organization,” he wrote. “Hindsight being 20/20, we understand that it was not the best decision from our Board without discussing it with Speaker Mattiello’s office and we take full responsibility.”
Mattiello added: “I encourage the Republican Party to focus on the many important issues facing our state.”
The hockey flap is just the latest instance of critics seizing on a legislative grant to argue the program allows lawmakers to use taxpayer money to burnish their reputations in their home districts. Each grant is authorized by Mattiello in the House or Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed in her chamber.
This year’s state budget allots $2 million for legislative grants, split evenly between the House and Senate, Berman said.
Documents posted on the General Assembly website show Rhode Island’s 113 lawmakers have already requested hundreds of thousands of dollars in legislative grants since the fiscal year began July 1, with the would-be recipients ranging from sports leagues and church groups to schools and nursing homes.
While most of the grants total in the low thousands, others are worth more – usually when the request comes from a lawmaker who is part of or close to Democratic leadership.
On the House side, the biggest legislative grant requests have been $25,000 for Justice Assistance of Cranston, requested by Mattiello; $15,000 for Inspiring Minds of Providence, requested by House Majority Leader John DeSimone; and $10,000 for the Special Olympics of Rhode Island, also requested by Mattiello.
On the Senate side, the biggest requests have been $20,000 for The DaVinci Center For Community Progress of Providence, requested by Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin; $15,000 for Serve Rhode Island, requested by Sen. Juan Pichardo; and $11,000 for Fruit Hill Day Services for the Elderly, requested by Sen. Frank Ciccone.
A number of other senators have asked to provide various groups with one or more legislative grants of $10,000, including Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dan DaPonte, Sen. Ryan Pearson, Goodwin and Ciccone.
Mattiello and Paiva Weed had yet to sign off on many of the legislative grants requested so far this budget year as of Oct. 1.