GOP chairman files complaint over pro-Mattiello mailer

Nicholas Mattiello and Shawna Lawton

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell filed a formal complaint Monday with the R.I. Board of Elections over a mailer endorsing Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello that was sent by a Republican who’d sought the nomination to run against him.

The 77-page complaint alleges Shawna Lawton, who endorsed Mattiello after failing to win the Republican nomination in his district, did not properly disclose the mailer and who funded it as a so-called “independent expenditure” to benefit Mattiello.

It also alleges Lawton and Mattiello engaged in “illegal coordination and consultation” because Jeff Britt, a political adviser to Mattiello, met with Lawton before the mailer went out, after which she privately told others she’d been “promised” help on anti-vaccine issues in exchange for her support.

In a statement, Bell argued “there is no doubt Lawton’s endorsement mailer violated Rhode Island’s campaign finance law.” He noted the mailer cost much more than the $1,000 limit on in-kind contributions to a campaign, which would be in effect if it was coordinated with Mattiello’s team, and if it was an independent expenditure, the spending should have been formally disclosed within 24 hours.

Citing Lawton’s comments about being promised something by Britt, Bell said: “This is a quid pro quo, and could be considered a form of bribery. … Law enforcement should investigate this deal between the Lawton and the Mattiello campaigns for any potential criminal wrongdoing.”

Mattiello and his campaign team have repeatedly denied they promised Lawton anything, despite private messages that leaked Sunday showing Lawton’s comments to the contrary. Mattiello insisted on WPRO Monday that he made no promises and has no plans to act on anti-vaccine legislation. He also said he wished she hadn’t sent the mailer and urged her to disclose who paid for it.

“I have never spoken to her or anyone about her endorsement or about the vaccine issue,” Mattiello said. He also said he hadn’t spoken to Britt since the leaked messages became public.

A spokeswoman for Mattiello did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with him on Monday, but in a statement she distributed the speaker called Bell’s complaint “merit-less.”

It’s not clear when or whether the Board of Elections will act on Bell’s complaint.

Richard Thornton, who leads campaign-finance compliance for the elections board, said he could not comment on Bell’s complaint specifically but said in general they try to handle complaints as quickly as possible, particularly when they involve active candidates close to an election.

There is precedent for a General Assembly candidate having to report an independent expenditure after buying paid media to influence another legislative candidate’s race. In 2012, then-Rep. Spencer Dickinson filed such a disclosure form after spending nearly $4,000 to help defeat then-House Speaker Gordon Fox.

Lawton has not responded to multiple requests for comment since Sunday, and she apparently deleted her Twitter account after the leaked messages became public.

In an interview with WPRO’s Dan Yorke last week, Lawton insisted it was fellow Republicans – not Mattiello supporters – who provided the money for the mailer. But said told Yorke she won’t reveal their identities until her next campaign-finance report is filed on Jan. 31, well after the election.

“I don’t need to tell you,” she said.

Mattiello, who represents a GOP-friendly district in Western Cranston, is in a tough re-election race against Republican National Committeeman Steven Frias, and his defeat would trigger a sudden scramble for power at the State House. A low-profile third candidate, independent Patrick Vallier, is also on the ballot.

Hoping to capitalize on the negative headlines surrounding Mattiello, Frias’s campaign is sending voters a hard-hitting mailer that describes “The Mattiello Gang” as “a national embarrassment” and “the most unethical State House leadership team in RI history.” It features photos of, among others, controversial former Rep. Ray Gallison and retiring Rep. John Carnevale.

Mattiello and Frias will meet for their only debate of the campaign Friday during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers.

Meanwhile, Bell called on other Democratic General Assembly candidates to promise they won’t re-elect Mattiello as speaker even if he beats Frias and returns to the State House in January. “Let’s put the scandals of the Mattiello leadership team, and now his own campaign, behind us,” he said.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram