Tomasso, D-Coventry, sent out a press release April 5 with the (oddly worded) headline: “Tomasso impresses importance of exports in Rhode Island.” The release, which got picked up by PolitiFact, laid out some of the testimony at recent hearings before the Permanent Joint Committee on Economic Development.
That didn’t sit well with Sheehan, D-North Kingstown, the committee’s co-chair. “I would request that you please speak to the chairs prior to doing a statewide release on what is the work of an entire committee, especially the chairs who have literally planned such hearings over the past so many months,” Sheehan told Tomasso in an email April 18 obtained by WPRI.com.
“I am confused by your request,” Tomasso replied the next day, CC’ing the committee’s other eight members. “It was not my intention to slight the Chairs or the hard working members of the committee.” She noted that Mark Hayward, the Small Business Administration’s district director, had urged lawmakers to “spread the word” about exports and that she had held the release for three days after the hearing.
“Three days seemed like an adequate amount of time for the committee to compose and release its statement,” Tomasso said.
Sheehan replied an hour later and noted he had attempted to discuss the issue privately.
“You can release anything you want to the media, anytime and any place,” he wrote. “But, your decision to send a press release statewide (as opposed to just your local papers) is an obvious attention grabber in an election year. However, it denies the committee chairs the rightful opportunity to make the entire committee’s work public (you are not the arbiter of how long a press release should take either).”
Tomasso was among the most endangered Democratic incumbents in the Assembly prior to redistricting. She won her seat by a razor-thin margin of eight votes in 2010, and this year she’s being challenged by Keith Anderson, a paraplegic East Providence High School teacher who is a favorite among local Republicans.
House spokesman Larry Berman confirmed there are no rules in place governing what a lawmaker is allowed to release to the press. Each lawmaker is assigned to one of the nonpartisan Legislative Press Bureau’s three publicists and can ask them to draft and distribute anything that is not campaign material.
Tomasso could not be reached for comment. Sheehan said the freshman Democrat’s actions were “a breach of etiquette” because she used the work of an entire committee to draw attention mostly to herself.
“Think about if you did a report and you did all the research and you’re waiting to go to press, and somebody saw your report and did a press release and put their name on it instead of Ted Nesi’s,” Sheehan told WPRI.com. “That’s basically what occurred with this committee.” He also suggested reporters should spend more time covering the committee’s hearings and less time covering its email exchanges.
In a follow-up email, Sheehan emphasized that the incident should not detract from the panel’s work. “While there may have been a breach in protocol in this instance, Rep. Tomasso’s input in the committee process, along with other members, is highly valued,” he said. “Working together as a team, we can help improve the business climate in Rhode Island to create much needed jobs for residents of our state.”
(photo: General Assembly)