PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s re-election campaign was battling a new controversy Sunday night after the emergence of private messages suggesting his political adviser promised anti-vaccine legislation to win the endorsement of a Republican rival-turned-ally.
The blowup revolves around Shawna Lawton, who lost to Steven Frias in the Sept. 13 GOP primary for Cranston’s District 15, which Democrat Mattiello represents. Lawton made headlines last week when she used her campaign account, which had been nearly empty at the last reporting deadline, to send a mailer endorsing Mattiello over Frias.
Also on Sunday, good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island urged the R.I. Board of Elections to investigate whether Lawton’s handling of the “unusual mailing” violated Rhode Island campaign-finance law.
Lawton did not respond to a request for comment Sunday. Her Twitter account also appears to have been deleted, though she previously posted a message there about endorsing Mattiello that said in part, “No deal.”
Lawton has been active with Rhode Island Alliance for Vaccine Choice, a group that opposes the state’s new policy to require vaccinations against HPV. The newly leaked messages, first reported by The Providence Journal and separately obtained by Eyewitness News, show Lawton told members of the vaccine group Oct. 10 she planned to meet with Jeff Britt, a Mattiello adviser, the following day.
“Britt reached out to me,” Lawton wrote.
A week later, on Oct. 17, she informed the group she would be announcing her support of Mattiello, explaining: “I have been ‘promised’ we will get further with our issues. … I’m taking the best option we have right now.” Her decision appeared to surprise and frustrate some members of the group.
On Sunday, however, Britt denied Lawton’s version of events, saying Lawton was the one who called him and invited him to lunch. He accused state GOP Chairman Brandon Bell of creating the controversy.
“As a long-time Republican strategist, I was thrilled when Shawna Lawton reached out to me and said that Steve Frias wasn’t fit to be state representative,” Britt said in a statement.
“We never talked about legislation or anything else that Brandon Bell is trying to contrive to save his candidate with,” Britt said. “I did not ever speak to her about vaccine legislation – I wouldn’t know a vaccine issue if it bit me in the behind.”
In her own statement, Mattiello campaign spokeswoman Patti Doyle added: “Shawna Lawton has now gone on record twice to say that neither the speaker nor his campaign had promised her anything. Jeff Britt does not have anything to do with legislation.” Doyle also denied suggestions that Lawton is related to former Democratic Rep. Frank Montanaro, who now has a Mattiello-appointed State House job.
Mattiello and Frias are preparing to meet for their only debate of the campaign next Friday during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers.
Common Cause’s concern about Lawton’s activity is not directly related to the private messages that emerged Sunday, but rather involves her decision to raise additional campaign money and use it to send voters in District 15 the mailer endorsing Mattiello. She told The Journal the mailer cost $2,150 and said the money came from Republicans.
“The unusual mailing by former District 15 candidate endorsing Speaker Mattiello could be seen as one of two things under campaign finance law; as an in-kind contribution to his campaign, or an independent expenditure separate from, but on behalf of, the speaker’s campaign,” John Marion, Common Cause’s executive director, told Eyewitness News in an email.
“If it’s the former it’s limited to $1,000, and if it’s the latter and is over $1,000 in value it must be reported within 24 hours,” Marion continued. “Either way the mailing may have violated the law and the Board of Elections should investigate any complaint it receives on the matter.”
Bell, the Republican chairman, said he plans to file a complaint over the mailer. He argued the Mattiello team’s confirmation that Britt met with Lawton shows they coordinated with her.
Ric Thornton, who handles campaign finance for the Board of Elections, said in an email Friday afternoon that he had not seen the mailer himself but had been informed about it.
Asked about whether Lawton or Mattiello needed to disclose spending on the mailer to the board, Thornton gave this general reply leaving open the possibility:
An expenditure made by a person on behalf of a candidate, or benefitting a candidate, and which is coordinated with the candidate, is a contribution in-kind to the candidate and subject to the statutory limits. The recipient candidate would report the source, date, amount and purpose of the in-kind contribution on his/her campaign finance report. If the person providing the good or service in-kind also files reports with the Board (i.e; a candidate), he/she would report the expenditure on his/her campaign finance report.
An expenditure made by a person in support of, or in opposition to, a candidate, that is not coordinated with the candidate (i.e.; independent), is not subject to the statutory limits and requires reporting to the Board, provided the total of the money so expended exceeds $1,000 in the calendar year.
The beneficiary of the advocacy has no obligation to report the amount expended to benefit him/her, provided the expenditures are independent and not coordinated.
If the person independently advocating for a candidate expends funds from his/her campaign account for that purpose, the expenditure must be reported on campaign finance reports filed with the Board….and, provided the total amount so expended exceeds $1,000 in the calendar year, a separate reporting as an Independent Advocate (Form CF-8) is required (and within 30 days of the election, due within 24 hrs of exceeding the $1,000 in expenditures).
Speaking Monday morning on WPRO, Mattiello said he hadn’t talked with Britt since the Lawton messages emerged but insisted no promise related to vaccines had ever been made, reiterating that he thinks the issue should be left up to the R.I. Department of Health.
Mattiello also said he wished Lawton had not sent the mailer at all, and called on her to disclose the donors who provided the money that paid for it.