PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — One of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s top appointees has received nearly $50,000 in free tuition in the three years since he left a job at Rhode Island College to work at the State House, the Target 12 Investigators have learned.
Former state Rep. Frank Montanaro Jr. was named executive director of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, or JCLS, shortly after Mattiello took charge of the House in April 2014. JCLS is an entity controlled by the speaker whose responsibilities include the General Assembly’s nearly $40-million annual budget. Montanaro’s yearly salary is $155,930, according to the state’s transparency portal.
But Target 12 has learned Montanaro did not completely give up his old job at RIC when he became JCLS director. Instead he sought and received “leave-to-protect” status, which gives state workers the right to get back their old job while they test out a new one. While leave-to-protect is typically for six months, RIC allowed Montanaro to remain on leave for three full years, until just last week.
In an interview Wednesday, Montanaro said he requested leave in case the JCLS job didn’t work out. “I didn’t know if I was going to fit in this position, if it was going to be a job that I would like,” he said, adding that by the third year, “I knew I was starting to get more comfortable in the position here.”
By remaining a quasi-employee of RIC after moving to the State House, Montanaro also remained eligible for a lucrative benefit – free college tuition.
Kristy dosReis, a spokeswoman for RIC, confirmed that Montanaro has received 12 semesters’ worth of free tuition at RIC and the University of Rhode Island since the fall of 2014, worth a combined $49,787. He received no other wages or benefits from RIC during his leave, she said. His job there, which he held for about 27 years, had paid about $83,000.
Montanaro said the free tuition was for two individuals, describing one as his child and one as a “guardian.” He side-stepped questions about whether it was fair for him to receive the benefit while holding down a new job at a significantly higher salary, saying he was entitled to it as a member of PSA Local 3302, a union at RIC.
“It’s a benefit that is afforded to everybody under the PSA [contract], that if they are on leave-to-protect status that is part of their benefit package,” Montanaro said. He added, “It was a benefit afforded to me as a Rhode Island College employee as well as other employees in the higher ed system, and it’s a benefit that was afforded just like anyone else.”
“I understand the question, but I followed the process afforded to me under my contract at Rhode Island College,” he said.
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The disclosure comes as the General Assembly engages in a heated debate over the question of who should receive taxpayer-funded college. Gov. Gina Raimondo is pressing lawmakers to offer two years of free tuition to all Rhode Islanders, but Mattiello has strongly resisted the proposal, and it appears unlikely the idea will make it into the new state budget expected as soon as next week.
Montanaro, a Democrat and the son of a prominent union leader, held Mattiello’s current Cranston House seat from 1987 until 2004, when he lost re-election to a Republican challenger. Mattiello won the seat back for the Democrats two years later.
According to RIC, Montanaro first requested a leave in 2014 under the union’s collective bargaining agreement, and the college granted one year. RIC’s then-president, Nancy Carriuolo, agreed to extend the leave for another year in 2015.
Later, as “a result of a negotiated settlement with the bargaining unit in 2016, a third and final year was granted,” dosReis said.
Asked about the college’s reference to “a negotiated settlement,” Montanaro insisted it was not an indication of a dispute between RIC’s leaders and him over whether he should remain on leave for a third year. “I don’t think that was the case. … It wasn’t a disagreement,” he said.
He acknowledged he could have filed a grievance if RIC had denied his leave renewal, but said, “I didn’t have to.”
Montanaro said Mattiello knew he had been on leave from RIC but did not know about the free tuition. “He doesn’t know because it was between me, the employee, and the college,” he said.
Montanaro’s leave at RIC concluded on May 31, and he will pay his son’s tuition bills going forward, he said.
RIC hired a new employee to fill Montanaro’s old job last Nov. 13, long before his third year of leave ended, according to dosReis. “If Frank opted to return, the college would accommodate him in a similar capacity,” she said.
This isn’t the first time a former lawmaker has taken a leave from RIC after getting tapped for a top State House job. Frank Anzeveno, a North Providence Democrat who served as chief of staff to the three speakers before Mattiello, also took a leave from a job there when he was first appointed by then-Speaker John Harwood, according to published reports at the time.
Montanaro said he did not know if it’s common for legislative staffers to request leave-to-protect status when they start working at the State House. “I don’t know what other people do – personnel is very private,” he said.
Asked whether he would have taken the JCLS job if he had not been allowed to keep the free tuition, Montanaro said: “I probably would have still come here. I don’t know. That’s a good question. It wasn’t in front of me at the time so I can’t answer that question.”