GOP asks education leaders to investigate how Montanaro got free tuition

Mattiello defends aide but questions policy: 'Should the janitors get free tuition?'

Frank Montanaro Jr.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Rhode Island Republican Party on Monday filed a formal request asking the state’s education leaders to review whether a top General Assembly staffer should have kept receiving free tuition after leaving Rhode Island College to work at the State House.

Target 12 revealed this month 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.

In a letter to the R.I. Board of Education and Acting Postsecondary Commissioner Brenda Dann-Messier, GOP Chairman Brandon Bell argued it’s unclear how Montanaro qualified for the free tuition, noting that employees on leave need specific written permission and state personnel rules limit unpaid leaves of absence to one year. The letter was also sent to Education Commissioner Ken Wagner.

The Republican leader asked the board to determine whether Montanaro was eligible for the tuition benefit, then seek reimbursement if he was not – potentially by taking him to court – or else “explain to the public how and why Mr. Montanaro received this special treatment.”

RIC officials say that while state personnel policy limits unpaid leaves to one year, the contract negotiated by Montanaro’s union allows renewals for multiple years, and the union agreement trumps the personnel policy.

“The RIGOP recognizes that its request is not of routine nature, but neither is the granting of free tuition benefits to an individual working for the JCLS while [he] was on leave without pay from Rhode Island College for three years,” Bell wrote. (JCLS is the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the administrative arm of the General Assembly that Montanaro leads.)

Bell warned that “public mistrust surrounding this issue is growing,” and added: “The outrage over Mr. Montanaro may soon be directed at those institutions that have the power to take some action regarding this issue but refuse to do so because they would look complicit in this abuse.”

Bell said he will file a complaint in court if education officials decline to take up the matter.

In a statement, Acting Postsecondary Commissioner Brenda Dann-Messier did not respond directly to Bell’s request but said the matter is being looked at.

“The Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner is committed to ensuring that institutional practices follow Council policies and employment contracts,” she said. “The Office is reviewing the processes for granting waivers throughout the system, and we are engaged closely with Rhode Island College to understand this particular situation.”

Bell sent copies of the letter to Montanaro, Mattiello, Gov. Gina Raimondo, and the other four lawmakers who serve on JCLS, which is chaired by Mattiello: House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi, House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere.

In a statement Friday, RIC President Frank Sanchez had little of substance to say about the Montanaro affair. He argued the disclosures “reaffirm the college’s ongoing efforts to assess our policies and procedures,” and said he is working “to ensure, through appropriate processes, that all employee benefit programs are consistent with Council on Postsecondary Education policies and state regulations.”

Mattiello, who now represents Montanaro’s old Cranston House district, has consistently defended his aide since the tuition perk came to light. In an interview on WPRO last week, the speaker again suggested the problem lies with RIC for giving Montanaro the benefit, rather than with Montanaro for requesting it.

“I would be the first to say the benefit should not have been offered,” Mattiello told host Tara Granahan. “And that should be withdrawn. But once you offer it to someone, the mistake is on the college. It is not on the individual who takes the benefit.” He insisted Montanaro’s situation was “not special permission.”

“I’ve asked dozens of people, ‘If the benefit was offered to you, would you take it?’ And to the last one, everybody said they would,” Mattiello said. “And if we’re honest with ourselves, we would say if the benefit was offered we would take it.”

Mattiello suggested there was no broader financial harm done by allowing Montanaro’s family members to attend college for free. “There’s no cost to the taxpayers – the teachers, the professors, are already there, the classrooms are already set up – so there’s no cost to the taxpayers,” he said.

But, he added, “I think what we have to do, is we have to really look at that benefit because I think too many people are getting that benefit, whether they work at the university or not. I think for college professors’ students, it’s probably appropriate; beyond that, we have to come to a decision. How many people want to be a janitor at the school? Should the janitors get free tuition?”

In the meantime, Mattiello expressed strong support for keeping Montanaro on staff at the State House. “Frank Montanaro is a uniquely qualified person,” the speaker said. “He does a phenomenal job for us. And from my perspective, that’s the important thing. … He’s actually invaluable to the House and to the legislature.”

Shekarchi, D-Warwick, also defended Montanaro’s decision not to release the documentation for the tuition waiver after previously saying he would. “If it’s private personnel information, he’s entitled to keep that private,” Shekarchi told RIPR. “If it’s public information, the university should share that information.”

The No. 2 House Democrat also said he believed that Montanaro “was entitled to take this benefit.”

“Since I’ve known Frank Montanaro, since I’ve been in the State House, he’s been diligently working hard,” Shekarchi added. “Even [Republican] Leader Morgan likes him – he performs for everybody in a bipartisan way at a high level. He’s a very talented person.”

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