Montanaro reverses course, won’t disclose docs on $50K free tuition perk

Top Mattiello aide also answers questions about late Ethics Commission filing

Frank Montanaro Jr.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A top General Assembly staffer who received about $50,000 of free tuition despite leaving Rhode Island College to work at the State House said Tuesday he will not share copies of the documentation for it, despite previously indicating he would.

Target 12 revealed last week that former state Rep. Frank Montanaro Jr. spent three years on unpaid leave from his old position at RIC after taking a $156,000-a-year State House job appointed by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, and that his status allowed him to collect $49,787 in free tuition over that time period. Under Montanaro’s union contract, workers on unpaid leave are not eligible for the tax-free tuition waivers unless they receive special approval from RIC.

RIC has refused to release documents regarding Montanaro’s leave and tuition benefits, saying they are in his personnel file and therefore confidential. Montanaro initially suggested he supported making them public and was willing to provide them voluntarily.

“I didn’t know you guys went over there to do that,” he told Target 12 last Wednesday. “I have no problem with that, obviously, because I signed off proper documentation. … Hindsight’s 20/20 – I would have said, ‘Hey, come on, we’ll go over and get a copy.’ I didn’t have a problem.”

In the days since, Target 12 has repeatedly requested the documents. Montanaro finally responded Tuesday evening, saying he is no longer willing to provide the documentation or to authorize RIC to release it.

“I believe you have access to all the public information that supports my leave-to-protect status and my acceptance of a tuition waiver, per the collective bargaining agreement with Rhode Island College,” Montanaro told Target 12 in an email.

“As to my personnel file, state law does not consider these documents to be public records,” he continued. “In all good conscience, I will not be waiving my right to keep my personnel file private.”

The Providence Journal weighed in about the controversy Tuesday evening, publishing an editorial sharply critical of RIC’s arrangement with Montanaro.

“What mid-level employee in the private sector can secure a lucrative job that pays twice as much, while receiving $50,000 worth of perks associated with the old job – and the right to return if anything goes amiss?” the newspaper asked. “How does this system benefit the public?”

RIC spokeswoman Kristy dosReis provided additional details about the process for granting tuition waivers at the college Tuesday. She said the benefit is managed by the Office of Human Resources, and indicated requests must be approved by high-ranking members of the school’s administration.

“All waivers are authorized by the director of human resources or other appointing authority including the college controller, vice president for administration and finance or the college president,” dosReis said. She previously confirmed former RIC President Nancy Carriuolo signed off on the second year of Montanaro’s three-year leave, but has not said who did so in the first and third years.

It also emerged Tuesday that Montanaro was more than a month late in submitting his required financial disclosure form to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. It was due April 28, but he did not file it until May 31.

“It was nothing more than an oversight and I addressed the issue immediately after receiving the reminder from the commission,” Montanaro told Target 12 in another email.

Montanaro’s three most recent ethics disclosures – for 2016, 2015 and 2014 – do not mention his time on leave from RIC or the tuition waivers he received from the college during that time period. He said he was not required to list them.

“The tuition waivers were not listed under the family source income or any other section of the questionnaire because the IRS does not consider the waiver income, they treat waivers as scholarships and grants for which no 1099 is issued,” Montanaro explained via email. He said a different IRS form, the 1098-T, is issued for the tuition waivers.

“To ensure my filings were correct I followed up with the Ethics Commission on this issue,” Montanaro added. “They explained they follow the IRS guidelines to determine what income is.”

On Montanaro’s 2014 form, which covered the year he went on leave at RIC to work for Mattiello, he wrote that his last date of occupation at RIC was June 1, 2014, and that he began working at the State House as director of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services the following day.

“On the 2014 report in question, I listed the dates of employment as required by the questionnaire,” Montanaro said. “The form represents dates only, nothing contained in the document states that ‘I left the college.’ As I have told you I was on leave to protect status from 6/2/14 and ended on 5/31/17.”

Most state lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, have said little publicly about the Montanaro controversy, with the notable exception of state Rep. Jared Nunes, D-West Warwick, who spoke out last week. Weighing in Monday was state Sen. Nicholas Kettle, R-Coventry, who described the arrangement as “sickening” and wrote on Twitter that the tuition money “should be paid back.”

State Sen. Elaine Morgan, R-Hopkinton, also posted on Twitter about the story:

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