Lawmakers don’t back call for Montanaro to reimburse $50K in free tuition

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Days after Rhode Island’s GOP chairman demanded a top legislative staffer reimburse state colleges for free tuition used by his family, not one state lawmaker interviewed by Target 12 has echoed the call.

Some, however, have questioned whether the perk should be allowed moving forward, presuming it was appropriately granted in the first place.

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 despite taking a six-figure State House job appointed by House Speaker Nicholas 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.

Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell urged Montanaro to repay the tuition money immediately after the report, but the only lawmaker who has come close to agreeing is state Rep. Kenneth Mendonca, R-Portsmouth, who said during Friday’s taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers that “it would be nice if he did it on his own.”

But, Mendonca said, “I think there was an agreement made between the college and himself and unfortunately the taxpayers are going to pay the difference for that.”

Both Mendonca and state Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, said on Newsmakers they did not know about a policy called “leave to protect,” which allows a state employee a grace period where they can return to their old job if a new position isn’t the right fit. The protection usually only lasts for six months, but Montanaro was able to stretch that out for three years through agreements with his old employer, RIC.

“Until you reported it I didn’t know you had the ability to defer your position and hold a position while you are employed in a whole other position,” Mendonca said. “But it shouldn’t be something where you are able to hold a position while working for another state position for three years, that just smells bad, looks bad, and should not be right.”

DiPalma agreed.

“Especially given … what’s been going on for three years,” DiPalma said. “We need to figure out, how do we move that forward and change that practice?”

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.

Both lawmakers said if Montanaro received the free college tuition benefit properly, he should not be forced to pay the colleges back. Other lawmakers contacted by Target 12 held the same position, including four of JCLS’s five members: Speaker Mattiello, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan and House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi. (The fifth, Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, has not responded to a request for comment.)

In a statement Thursday, Mattiello said he was aware that Montanaro was on leave to protect when he took the JCLS job, but he did not know about the tuition benefits.

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

State Rep. Jared Nunes, D-West Warwick, has been the toughest legislative critic of the arrangement, questioning whether other workers without Montanaro’s connections would be afforded the same treatment.

“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.”

Montanaro said two family members tapped into the free college tuition benefit. Records reviewed by Target 12 show he received 12 semesters tuition-free: six to RIC and six to the University of Rhode Island.

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