WARWICK — House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello on Thursday recalled being incensed to learn that a mailer from a failed Republican candidate endorsing him was sent to voters just before Election Day during a tight race in 2016.
“I was angry at the mailer,” Mattiello testified. “I thought that it was not a good idea. I thought it was going to hurt my campaign in the last days of the campaign.” He said he called his chief of staff, Leo Skenyon, to yell at him and went into damage-control mode.
Mattiello took the stand in the trial of his former political consultant Jeffrey Britt, who is accused of laundering money through a straw donor to make it appear that Republican Shawna Lawton alone had paid $2,150 for a mailer backing Mattiello. Lawton had just been defeated by Mattiello’s challenger, Steven Frias.
Mattiello’s appearance under oath made for a highly unusual spectacle Thursday in Superior Court, Warwick, as yet another election is just days away, this time with Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung challenging Mattiello. Testimony is exposing the inner workings of Mattiello’s 2016 campaign, such as opposition research done on his rival and envelopes of cash being exchanged.
While seating in Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Procaccini’s courtroom is limited due to the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of Rhode Islanders tuned in via live-streamed audio of the proceedings provided by the judiciary.
Britt’s lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Robert Clark Corrente, has been striving throughout the trial to establish that Britt is being made the “fall guy” for the Mattiello campaign, trying to extract from witnesses what he has called “the heart of the case” — who knew about the mailer and when.
Mattiello’s campaign had put out 40-plus mailers in his race against Frias. The campaign covered “all campaign expenses, yes,” Mattiello said, adding after a slight pause, “if they are sent to me.”
Asked by prosecutor Stephen Dambruch why he had hired Britt, Mattiello said Britt was known for working closely with the media and opposition research.
“I didn’t want him working against me,” he said, adding, “It is a decision I regret at this point.”
He said a lot of people had recommended Britt to him in 2016, and just as many told him to steer clear. He had planned to enlist Britt again in 2018.
“The best way I describe it is that he drops dimes and he tries to make connections.… His name is never in the story,” Mattiello said.
Former State House lawyer Matthew Jerzyk also testified before Procaccini, who alone will issue a verdict. Jerzyk, who appeared to struggle with his testimony, recalled Britt’s trying to generate Republican votes for Mattiello during the “chaotic” last days of the campaign in 2016.
Britt came to him excited about Lawton’s support and Jerzyk said he transcribed the content on the mailer at the center of the case.
Asked repeatedly about who signed off on the mailer, Jerzyk said he couldn’t recollect, but he called it a “Jeff Britt project.”
Corrente asked about Jerzyk’s testimony to the grand jury: “I kinda freaked out when I saw this Kathy Gregg story” in The Providence Journal that exposed the links between the Mattiello campaign and the people who ostensibly paid for the mailer.
“You freaked out … because as soon as you read it you knew, ’Wait a minute — I worked on it.’ Correct?,” Corrente quoted a prosecutor saying.
“And correct me if I’m wrong but you never worked for the Shawna Lawton campaign, did you?” Corrente continued reading.
“Correct,” Jerzyk said.
“So you knew right then and there that a misrepresentation had been made, correct?” Corrente read.
“Correct,” Jerzyk replied.
“I went and talked to Leo and said, `You know, this is a big problem,’” Corrente read from the transcript. The campaign then set about correcting its paperwork with the Board of Elections, Jerzyk told grand jurors.
The grand jury indicted Britt, 52, of Florida, with one count each of money laundering and making an illegal campaign contribution, after the case was referred to the attorney general’s office by the state Board of Elections.
Prosecutor John Moreira pursued a similar line of questioning, appearing to grow frustrated by Jerzyk’s failure in memory.
“Were you in communication with Jeffrey Britt regarding the approval by the campaign of the Shawna Lawton mailer?” Moreira said.
“I do not recall,” Jerzyk said, conceding that a text shown to him certainly supported the Board of Elections’ finding that he and Britt had coordinated with Lawton.
Moreira displayed a message from Britt that read: “Reminder have Leo sign off on the Lawton mailer.”
“The approval of this mailer, that’s not something you could have done on your own?” Moreira said.
Correct, Jerzyk said.
“That’s something you would have had to seek approval for, correct?” Moreira said.
“Yes,” Jerzyk said.
“And it would have been Mr. Skenyon’s decision to approve the mailer or don’t approve the mailer, right?” Moreira asked.
“I don’t have a specific recollection, but generally speaking, yes,” Jerzyk said.
“I think it’s one of two options: you either did this on your own or you got approval. Which one is it?” Moreira said.
“Sitting here today, four years later, I have no specific recollection,” Jerzyk said.
Skenyon also testified and, like Jerzyk, had a shaky memory about the events surrounding the Lawton mailer.
Corrente showed him a message he wrote about Frias’s wife not living in their house. (Frias says the message was false, calling it a “lie.”)
Had he done surveillance on Frias? Corrente asked.
No, Skenyon replied. Someone had passed the house and reported it to him, he said.
Corrente presented text messages, including one from Britt saying that Lawton had signed off on the mailer, that Skenyon couldn’t recall.
“This is from four years ago. I have hundreds and hundreds of them every day,” Skenyon said.
Skenyon said he learned of Jerzyk’s involvement after the mailer came out.
He couldn’t recall invoices from Britt, whom the campaign paid $25,000.
Before the start of testimony, Corrente argued that the money-laundering charge be dismissed due to “fatal” flaws in the state’s evidence that don’t support his conviction.
Corrente accused state prosecutors of dramatically overcharging Britt by converting what should be a misdemeanor campaign-finance violation into a felony.
“This case does not qualify as an aggravated anything. It is $1,000. Under Rhode Island law, it is a misdemeanor; that’s all it is,” Corrente said.
He called the money-laundering charge “an exceedingly bad fit.”
“It’s dropping an atom bomb on a bug,” Corrente said.
Corrente dissected witness testimony, arguing that Britt had merely paid Mattiello supporter Victor Pichette $1,000 that he was owed and Pichette then donated it to Lawton due to his dislike of Frias.
Dambruch countered that the case strikes at the very integrity of the election process and that the charges against Britt should stand.
“This case involves an overarching scheme to corruptly influence the electoral process for the benefit of one candidate, Nicholas Mattiello, by obtaining the endorsement of a Republican candidate, Shawna Lawton, in such a way that it appears as if she is independently endorsing Mattiello,” Dambruch said.
The financing of the mailer is part of that overarching scheme and is the focus of the money-laundering charge, he said.
“The defendant’s misconduct strikes at the heart of the electoral system. It undermines the integrity of that system by replacing transparency … with deception,” Dambruch said.
Procaccini, who will rule later on Corrente’s motion to dismiss, questioned Dambruch on Thursday about testimony that others, such as Jerzyk, had been involved in producing the mailer.
The evidence shows that Britt orchestrated the scheme to produce the mailer “from start to finish,” Dambruch said.
On Twitter: @kmulvane