Montanaro’s $50K tuition perk was tax-free, required special approval

Top Mattiello aide has called free tuition 'a benefit that is afforded to everybody'

Frank Montanaro Jr.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A top General Assembly staffer who received about $50,000 in free tuition after departing Rhode Island College to work at the State House paid no taxes on the benefit and had to secure special permission to qualify, Target 12 has confirmed.

Target 12 revealed last week that former state Rep. Frank Montanaro Jr. spent three years on unpaid leave from his old position at RIC despite taking a $156,000-a-year State House job appointed by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, and that the move allowed him to collect $49,787 in free tuition over that time period.

RIC spokeswoman Kristy dosReis said undergraduate tuition waivers are a tax-free benefit provided to employees at state colleges, and she confirmed that the 12 semesters of tuition waivers used by Montanaro over the last three years were all for undergraduate studies at RIC and the University of Rhode Island.

Montanaro’s six-figure income puts him in a higher tax bracket, so if he’d been paying college bills using after-tax dollars he would have needed to earn significantly more than $50,000 to cover the same amount in tuition payments – making the perk all the more valuable.

Montanaro has said he was entitled to the free tuition despite being on leave, citing his membership in 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 told Target 12 last week, adding that the college had treated him “just like anyone else” in waiving tuition while he was on leave.

However, two documents reviewed by Target 12 – the union’s contract and the R.I. Board of Education’s personnel policy – both show that Montanaro’s treatment is not standard policy.

The union’s contract states: “If an employee is an otherwise ‘eligible employee’ but is on leave without pay, neither the employee nor his spouse or domestic partner … or dependent children are eligible for tuition waiver unless specifically approved by the institution.” The personnel policy uses nearly identical language.

RIC declined to release documents pertaining to Montanaro’s leave, saying they are in his personnel file and therefore are confidential. Montanaro indicated last week he would release the documents voluntarily, but he did not respond to a request for them on Monday. Mattiello’s spokesman also had no comment.

R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell last week called on Montanaro to reimburse taxpayers for the free tuition, but so far no state lawmaker from either party has echoed Bell’s demand. Mattiello said, “I’m not going to tell an employee what employment benefits they should or should not utilize.”

House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Patricia Serpa – whose 2016 primary opponent has asked her to call a hearing about the Montanaro revelation – indicated over the weekend that lawmakers are discussing the situation.

“There is some internal conversation about this issue,” Serpa, D-West Warwick, wrote in response to a question on Facebook. “A number of us wonder if this is SOP [standard operating procedure] with RIC (or URI and CCRI, for that matter).”

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