PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s office is walking back comments he made Tuesday about his taxpayer-paid chief of staff’s involvement in scheduling fundraisers for legislators.
“He misspoke,” Leo Skenyon, Mattiello’s chief of staff, told WPRI.com on Wednesday.
Mattiello’s remark came during a news conference Tuesday to discuss the stunning resignation of House Finance Committee Chairman Ray Gallison. The speaker indicated he first realized something was going on when the Bristol Democrat canceled a fundraiser scheduled for later in May.
“Last week, near the end of the week – I think it was Thursday – I learned that Chairman Gallison had canceled his fundraiser and didn’t reschedule it,” Mattiello told reporters. “So my chief of staff went down to reschedule the fundraiser, and he had no interest in that.”
Mattiello’s political adversaries quickly criticized his casual reference to Skenyon’s involvement in ensuring House Democrats raise campaign cash. All 113 General Assembly seats are on the ballot this November.
“It does not surprise us that Speaker Mattiello ordered his taxpayer-funded staff to perform political errands like scheduling political fundraisers,” Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell said in an email. “What surprises us is that he told the press about this unethical conduct and did not even recognize that he was admitting to doing something unethical.”
Sam Bell, state coordinator for the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, echoed the critique. He noted that disgraced former House Speaker Gordon Fox faced criticism over such behavior during his tenure, as well.
“The whole reason why the State House was raided in that case, is because that’s where all the campaign-finance records were located,” he said. “Because Gordon Fox’s secretary was filling out campaign-finance reports.”
Sam Bell has been pushing the Rhode Island Ethics Commission to crack down on political activity by state employees on state time, saying the rules are currently “very unclear.” (Brandon Bell and Sam Bell are not related.)
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, however, Skenyon strongly insisted Mattiello had not meant to suggest Skenyon went to Gallison to ensure the chairman still put a fundraiser back on the calendar before the end of the session next month.
Skenyon said he learned late Thursday that Gallison had cancelled the fundraiser, scheduled for May 9, and informed Mattiello of that. “He said, ‘Go find out when he’s going to reschedule his fundraiser,'” Skenyon said.
He continued: “I’m leaving the building, I’m walking out, and I went into [the House] Finance [Committee hearing room], and I waved to him, and he came over to that side room. So I said to him, ‘Chairman, I heard you cancelled your fundraiser – what’s going on?'”
Skenyon said Gallison danced around the question, first saying he was having a medical procedure done May 9, then repeatedly declining to answer when asked when he was planning to reschedule the fundraiser. “He did not give me a direct answer,” Skenyon said.
Skenyon informed Speaker Mattiello about the conversation, which eventually led to a face-to-face meeting between the three men at a Newport Creamery on Sunday, followed by Gallison’s resignation.
Skenyon described his State House conversation with Gallison on Thursday as a casual inquiry about his plans, not an effort to actually reschedule the fundraiser. While acknowledging his involvement in fundraising efforts as Mattiello’s chief of staff, Skenyon said: “I’ll tell you this – anything I do that’s political I do before work, on my lunch hour or after work.”
“The speaker has been very specific on that,” he added. “You do state work on state time and anything else is off state time. And that’s what happens.”
Brandon Bell, the GOP chairman, said he was not satisfied with Skenyon’s explanation.
“Instead of sending his chief of staff on the political errand of asking Gallison to reschedule a fundraiser, Mattiello now says he sent his chief of staff on the political errand of asking Gallison if he was still holding a fundraiser,” Bell said.
“It makes no difference,” he said. “Mattiello is still sending his taxpayer-funded chief of staff on political errands. Mattiello should not direct his chief of staff to do anything while at the State House related to the fundraisers of other state reps.”
Skenyon’s response: “If I do anything political, it’s off state time and that’s permitted, OK? It is permitted. I can do things off my state time that are permitted.” He said he largely limits his political business on behalf of the speaker to early mornings, late nights and weekends.
Sam Bell, of the Progressive Democrats, argued part of the problem is that Rhode Island lacks clear rules governing the involvement of state employees in partisan political activities, which he said exist in other states.
“Why did Skenyon want to know if Gallison planned to hold a fundraiser?” Bell asked. “Why is he talking about campaign activities? Why is he involved in fundraising at all? … But most importantly, this points to the need to have clear rules on this subject.”