Mattiello, other top lawmakers stand by staffer who got $50K in free tuition

GOP's Morgan joins speaker in asking governor to examine policy; Nunes critical

Frank Montanaro Jr.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and other leading lawmakers stood by a top appointee Thursday after Target 12 discovered he received about $50,000 in free tuition by taking unpaid leave from Rhode Island College while working for the General Assembly.

Target 12 first reported Wednesday that former state Rep. Frank Montanaro Jr. spent three years on leave from his old position at RIC despite taking a six-figure State House job appointed by 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.

R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell quickly called for Montanaro to return the money and demanded that Mattiello fire him. The speaker declined an interview request Thursday, but in a statement, he dismissed Bell’s comments.

“When Frank Montanaro was first hired, I was aware of his protected leave status,” Mattiello, D-Cranston, said. “I didn’t know how long it lasted, and I didn’t know what benefits are involved with that status.”

“I’m not going to tell an employee what employment benefits they should or should not utilize,” Mattiello continued. “I believe the administration has to comprehensively look at these benefits and limit them appropriately for everyone.”

Montanaro works as executive director of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, or JCLS, a five-member entity controlled by the speaker whose responsibilities include the General Assembly’s nearly $40-million annual budget. JCLS’s other four members are House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi, House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere.

“It is my understanding from the news report that Mr. Montanaro utilized tuition waiver benefits to which he was entitled,” Ruggerio, D-North Providence, said when asked about the arrangement.

Morgan, the House’s top Republican, distanced herself from the GOP chairman’s call for Montanaro to return the tuition money. “I’d have to think about that,” she said. “Let me put it this way – it’s a benefit average Rhode Islanders don’t get. I’d rather not comment on that.”

Morgan also joined Mattiello in suggesting Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration bears responsibility for agreeing to Montanaro’s request. “Who negotiated this kind of contract? Who allowed these kinds of benefits to be available? … I push it back to the governor to look at the contract,” Morgan said.

Shekarchi, D-Warwick, noted through a spokesman he was not on JCLS when Montanaro was hired in 2014. Asked whether the tuition money should be reimbursed, Shekarchi said, “It is my understanding the benefits were part of a collectively bargained contract.”

Algiere, R-Westerly, did not respond to a request for comment.

Montanaro’s tuition payments have sparked significant criticism on social media but little reaction from rank-and-file state lawmakers, with the exception of Rep. Jared Nunes, a West Warwick Democrat, who asked whether Montanaro received special treatment because of his influence.

“Do you think the guy that’s cleaning the toilets at RIC can leave that job for three years, send his kids to school there for three years, and go work in the private sector or anywhere else in state government and still maintain that benefit?” Nunes asked. “I don’t think that would be applied the same way.”

Nunes suggested the authorities should look into whether the contract terms were applied correctly in Montanaro’s case and whether there was “some type of collusion.”

“There is an old saying that’s out there, that pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered – and I don’t think it takes many people looking at that to say that’s kind of being a pig, if in fact it’s even allowed in the first place,” Nunes added. “I have a really tough time grasping the fact that it’s even allowed.”

According to RIC, Montanaro received his third year of free tuition after his union and the college reached “a negotiated settlement.” A RIC spokeswoman said Thursday the college would not release the document because it is in Montanaro’s personnel file and therefore is “considered non-public.”

Montanaro did not respond to an email requesting a copy of the document, though he indicated Wednesday he would release it voluntarily if asked. A Democrat and the son of a prominent union leader, Montanaro 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.

This isn’t the first time tuition waivers have drawn scrutiny.

In 2012, The Providence Journal reported that a tuition waiver was granted to an employee of the Institute for International Sport, the controversial nonprofit run by Dan Doyle, even though the employee was ineligible. The paper eventually sued for the names of waiver recipients.

That controversy led to a 2013 report by the R.I. Bureau of Audits, which 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 auditors said only a small number – 39 – were improperly granted.

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

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