GOP leader pushes Mattiello to fire staffer who got $50K in free tuition

Frank Montanaro Jr.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell is calling on House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to fire a top appointee for accepting nearly $50,000 in free college tuition, but the speaker is giving no indication he is upset with the staffer.

Target 12 first reported Wednesday that former state Rep. Frank Montanaro Jr. spent three years on leave from his old position at Rhode Island College after taking a six-figure State House job from Mattiello, and that the move allowed him to collect nearly $50,000 in free tuition over that time period. Montanaro said he was entitled to the benefit under his union contract.

Bell described the revelation as “absolutely outrageous,” and argued Mattiello should fire Montanaro. He also suggested Montanaro should reimburse taxpayers for the tuition money.

“Speaker Mattiello is against free tuition,” Bell said. “I wonder if he’s for free tuition for three years for two kids for his top aide?”

Montanaro told Target 12 he asked to be put on what’s known as “leave-to-protect” status from his RIC job after accepting the State House post because he wanted the option of returning to work at the college. “I didn’t know if I was going to fit in this position,” he said.

But Bell argued that Montanaro – a Cranston Democrat who used to hold the seat Mattiello now occupies – shouldn’t have needed so much time to decide. “It’s absolutely ridiculous to suggest that he was waiting to see if this was a good fit for him when he spent 15 years in the building as a legislator,” he said.

In a brief statement Wednesday night responding to the Target 12 report, Mattiello spokesman Larry Berman made no direct mention of Montanaro and did not say whether he agrees or disagrees with his actions. Instead, he suggested Gov. Gina Raimondo should deal with the matter.

“Speaker Mattiello has learned that there is a question regarding an employee who utilized a college tuition waiver benefit,” Berman said. “He believes the administration should comprehensively review the tuition waiver policy and consider limiting who is eligible for it.”

In an official statement Thursday, Bell continued his criticism: “Maybe Mattiello thinks he needs to protect Montanaro because Montanaro helped him in some way to barely win re-election by 85 votes.  But does Mattiello really want to go door to door explaining to his constituents how he opposes free college tuition for them but has no problem with Montanaro getting free college tuition benefits while Montanaro was actually working for him?”

A 2013 report by the R.I. Bureau of Audits found the state’s public colleges granted roughly 3,500 tuition waivers worth about $9.2 million for the fall and spring semesters during the 2011-12 academic year.

The reaction to the Montanaro revelation was swift and generally negative on Twitter, where a number of local leaders quickly weighed in.

State Rep. Jared Nunes, a West Warwick Democrat, said:

Nicholas Delmenico, who unsuccessfully challenged House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Patricia Serpa in last year’s Democratic primary, said:

Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block said:

Republican National Committeewoman Lee Ann Sennick said:

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook