Montanaro told URI he wasn’t on leave when he sought free tuition

Top State House staffer notes his tuition waivers 'were reviewed and approved'

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A top General Assembly staffer who got free tuition by staying on unpaid leave from Rhode Island College repeatedly asserted he was not on leave when he requested the benefit, according to documents newly obtained by Target 12.

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 job appointed by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, and that his status allowed him to collect $49,787 in free tuition over that 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. The college and Montanaro have refused to release documents relating to their arrangement, saying they are in his personnel file and therefore confidential.

But Montanaro’s family used seven of the free semesters at the University of Rhode Island – and when Target 12 asked URI for copies of his tuition waivers, the university handed them over.

On each of the seven URI waiver forms, Montanaro was asked some version of the following question: “Are you currently or have you been within the past 12 months out of work due to a leave without pay or a Workers Comp leave?”

Montanaro answered “Yes” on the first waiver request – dated Aug. 26, 2014 – and wrote that his leave was approved for one year, from June 2, 2014, to June 1, 2015. (June 2, 2014, was the day he started work at the State House.)

Montanaro went on to file six more waiver requests with URI between December 2014 and April 2017. But unlike on the first form, in those documents he answered the question about being leave by checking “No” – even though he and RIC both say he was on leave continuously from June 2014 through May 2017.

Notably, one of the URI waiver forms – dated Sept. 27, 2015 – uses different and more restrictive language in the section on leaves of absence. It asks the employee filling it out to answer whether he “will be back to work full-time on the first day of class.” If the answer is no, it says: “Stop, you are not eligible for the waiver.”

Asked why he stated he was not on leave during a time when he was in fact on leave, Montanaro said in an email: “As you can see all waivers were reviewed and approved by RIC. If there was a mistake they would have had me correct it before approval.” He also said a RIC staff member assisted him in filling out the forms.

RIC spokeswoman Kristy dosReis refused to say why the college allowed Montanaro to avoid disclosing his leave of absence on the form forwarded to URI, but told Target 12: “In this case, there was an existing agreement that enabled the authorization of a tuition waiver.” (RIC and Montanaro declined to provide a copy of that agreement.)

dosReis demurred in response to follow-up questions about the information on Montanaro’s URI tuition waivers. “The college cannot speculate on how an individual fills out forms,” she said.

A spokeswoman for URI said her school did not have the information needed to answer questions about Montanaro’s waivers.

Montanaro’s September 2015 form shows he checked off “No” when asked if he was on leave, but it also shows a slash through the same box along with the initialed words: “N/A per agreement.” URI’s spokeswoman said those words were written by someone at RIC, and RIC’s spokeswoman declined to release the agreement it references, again citing confidentiality.

An excerpt from the waiver form filed in September 2015.

The forms also carry this warning to employees about who is eligible for free tuition: “If leave without pay or Workers Comp leave began in the semester prior to the semester you are applying for, you are eligible for the current waiver only.” Underlining a key word, the warning continues: “Further waivers may be granted only after you return to work full time.”

Some of the waiver documents reveal errors or omissions that Montanaro says were “oversights,” as well, including a September 2016 form that lists his daughter as the student but which he says was actually for his son; a September 2015 form that does not list the beneficiary at all; a spring 2014 form with no date next to Montanaro’s signature; and multiple forms that do not say whether they will be used for tuition at URI or RIC.

State Sen. Nick Kettle, a Coventry Republican who attends RIC, expressed frustration about the latest disclosure. “Appears to me Mr. Montanaro lied or at the very least was misleading to obtain a taxpayer funded benefit,” Kettle wrote Tuesday night on Twitter. “He should pay it back or resign.”

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