PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo said Friday she would have asked the top State House staffer who took free tuition from Rhode Island College to step down if he worked for her, offering her harshest comments yet on the scandal.
Target 12 reported June 7 that Frank Montanaro Jr., a former lawmaker, 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. After two weeks of mounting controversy – and Target 12’s discovery that he claimed not to be on leave when seeking the tuition – Montanaro announced Wednesday he would repay the money.
Asked about the Montanaro affair by a caller during an appearance on WPRO, Raimondo described the incident as “disappointing,” adding that it “just feeds into the cynicism, justifiably.”
“I don’t think he should have had that special deal in the first place and – you know, he doesn’t work for me, so I think if he worked for me I think I probably would ask him to resign,” she said. “But he’s not my employee so they have to figure that out between them.”
In a follow-up statement, Raimondo spokesman Mike Raia said Raimondo has spoken with Acting Postsecondary Commissioner Brenda Dann-Messier about the issue and “is pleased that she will be conducting a review of the waiver policy.”
“WPRI’s reporting on this story raises a lot of serious questions and the people of Rhode Island deserve answers,” Raia said. “This whole situation has given Rhode Islanders a reason to be cynical at a time when there is so much happening in our state that we should be celebrating.”
Mattiello has defended Montanaro by saying he was allowed to use the tuition benefit, but eventually urged him to pay back the money. The speaker has also lauded Montanaro as “uniquely qualified” and “invaluable to the House and to the legislature.”
In a statement Friday, Mattiello made clear Montanaro will remain in place.
“Although Frank utilized a benefit he was entitled to according to his union contract, I talked with him and he took the appropriate action by beginning the process of repaying the college tuition,” the speaker said. “I look forward to Frank’s continued service.”
He added: “The governor’s attention would be better served focusing on her own administration.”
Raimondo’s comments came shortly before R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell issued a statement attacking her for failing to be more outspoken on the Montanaro matter. He urged her to order RIC to release all relevant documents and to have the state police investigate whether any crimes were committed.
“Where have you been for the last two weeks, governor?” Bell asked. “Out of state fundraising for yourself? Kissing up to Speaker Mattiello to get your free CCRI campaign ploy in the budget? Rhode Island needs courage, not cowards up at the State House.”
“Intentionally filing false documents with URI to obtain free tuition is wrong, and possibly a crime,” he said. “Speaker Mattiello should have already fired Mr. Montanaro rather than make excuses for him. Montanaro is only paying back the money now because he got caught filing false documents with URI. Mattiello is too afraid to fire Montanaro because he needs him to get re-elected.”
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.