Montanaro says he will repay $50,000 in free tuition, apologizes for ‘distraction’

Top Mattiello appointee faced growing questions about his long-term leave at RIC

Frank Montanaro Jr.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Embattled State House staffer Frank Montanaro Jr. abruptly announced Wednesday he will repay about $50,000 in free tuition he got by staying on leave from his old job while working at the State House, exactly two weeks after Target 12 first revealed the controversial arrangement.

Target 12 reported June 7 that Montanaro, a former lawmaker, spent three years on unpaid leave from his old position at Rhode Island College 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.

Though Mattiello and the vast majority of other lawmakers declined to question Montanaro’s actions, limiting their criticism to RIC, the revelation has sparked a public outcry. The questions grew Tuesday after Target 12 obtained documents showing Montanaro repeatedly asserted he was not actually on leave in his requests for the tuition benefits.

In a statement issued Wednesday evening by Bill Fischer, a veteran public-relations operative, Montanaro confirmed his decision to reimburse the colleges for the free tuition, which covered 12 semesters at RIC and the University of Rhode Island for two of his family members.

“After consultation with my family and Speaker Mattiello, I believe the best thing to do is return the monetary equivalent of the tuition benefit my children received after I transitioned to my new role at the General Assembly,” Montanaro said. “I will be contacting Rhode Island College tomorrow to make the necessary arrangements.”

Montanaro said he had consulted with a prominent labor attorney, Joseph Penza, who agreed he was eligible to receive the tuition waiver. But, Montanaro said, “the public has determined the decision I made on behalf of my family was inappropriate.”

“As an employee of the General Assembly, I want to apologize for the distraction this matter has caused over the past few days,” he said. “My initial response to media inquiries missed the mark and I now realize the negative perceptions that have manifested with the general public.”

Mattiello, D-Cranston, issued a brief statement saying, “I had a conversation with Frank and I believe he has done the right thing by agreeing to pay the money back.”

A Democrat and the son of a prominent union leader, Montanaro held Mattiello’s current Cranston House seat from 1987 until 2004, when he lost re-election to a Republican challenger. Mattiello won the seat back for the Democrats two years later, and when he became speaker in 2014 he made Montanaro executive director of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, which manages the Assembly’s roughly $40-million annual budget.

Montanaro and RIC have refused to release documents relating to their arrangement, saying they are in his personnel file and confidential. RIC spokeswoman Kristy dosReis said Wednesday the college would not reveal who signed the agreements with Montanaro or when they were executed.

“In response to both of these questions, there were agreements in place for each of the respective years as it relates to leave and the tuition waiver benefit,” dosReis told Target 12. “These agreements are a part of a personnel file and are confidential.” She did not respond to a follow-up question.

R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell has asked state education officials to conduct an investigation of how the Montanaro tuition waivers came about. Mattiello has previously suggested that while Montanaro did nothing wrong, the state’s public colleges may be granting tuition waivers to too many of their employees.

A 2013 report by the R.I. Bureau of Audits found the colleges granted roughly 3,500 tuition waivers worth about $9.2 million for the fall and spring semesters during the 2011-12 academic year. The auditors said only a small number – 39 – were improperly granted.

Here is the full statement from Montanaro:

As a Rhode Island College employee, my contract enabled me to take leave-to-protect status when I was named the executive director of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services in June of 2014. As a RIC employee on leave, I was able to receive the tuition waiver benefit.

In order to ensure the tuition waiver was properly obtained, I consulted with a labor attorney, Joseph Penza, who reviewed the pertinent documents and concluded the tuition waiver was appropriate. Although this was a contractual right, the public has determined the decision I made on behalf of my family was inappropriate. These past few days of public scrutiny have allowed me and my family to revisit the decision we made to exercise the tuition waiver benefit.

After consultation with my family and Speaker Mattiello, I believe the best thing to do is return the monetary equivalent of the tuition benefit my children received after I transitioned to my new role at the General Assembly. I will be contacting Rhode Island College tomorrow to make the necessary arrangements.

As an employee of the General Assembly, I want to apologize for the distraction this matter has caused over the past few days. My initial response to media inquiries missed the mark and I now realize the negative perceptions that have manifested with the general public.

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