Mattiello, new RI speaker, cleans House, starts anew amid old RI dealings

Mar 24, 2014

UPDATE: Williams (Labor) Ajello (Judiciary) Melo (Finance) out as committee chairs as Mattiello takes over.

As has been the case since its days as a British colony, Rhode Island’s florid political culture is once again enmeshed in upheaval because of chicanery in high places.

The abrupt demise of Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox of Providence means another episode of   `As the Rhode Island Statehouse turns.’

State police and federal IRS and FBI agents raided R.I. House Speaker Gordon Fox’s home and ornate speaker’s office Friday on the third floor of the Statehouse. It was a remarkable scene: IRS and  FBI agents rummaging through the office and carting out evidence of wrongdoing by the most powerful lawmaker in the General Assembly.

Once again, it looks to average Rhode Islanders like the Statehouse is the Bermuda Triangle of state politics, the place people who seem like decent folks when elected go to become imperious, dumb, corrupt and arrogant, albeit not necessarily in that order.

So far, the search warrants and affidavits on file in federal court to support the federal agent searches of Fox’s home and office last Friday have been sealed and are not available to the public.

Fox didn’t really have any options after the raid on his office, so he wisely resigned Saturday, about 24 hours after the feds finished carrying the evidence boxed from his residence and State House office suite on the top floor of the capitol.

While no one in authority is being specific about what law or laws Fox violated, most informed speculation is focused on a little-known quasi-public agency, the Providence Economic Development Partnership, which provides loans to city businesses that don’t qualify for traditional bank lending. Records from that agency were subpoenaed last week by the FBI.

Most observers believed the federal agents were looking into high default rates on the loans handed out by the agency. But Fox as a private lawyer did legal work for the development partnership. The deposed speaker recently paid a $1,500 fine to the state Ethics Commission for failing to disclose income he earned performing land record and title work for the agency.

The other item that has created buzz around Fox is the ongoing chatter about what really happened during the events surrounding the $75 million taxpayer-backed loan granted in 2010 to the ill-fated 38 Studios video game company that has since gone into bankruptcy, leaving taxpayer potentially on the hook for millions.

In the permanent ambition culture of Smith Hill, those vying to succeed Fox had to move fast. Winning the race appears to be House Majority Leader Nick Mattiello, D-Cranston, who jumped into the contest even before Fox resigned. Mattiello quickly lined up the votes necessary for a majority and when things look close, convinced most of the small group of Republicans – who number just 6 in the 75 member chamber – to go along.

Pushing back against Mattiello were another faction of Democrats close to Fox, including House Finance Committee Chairman Helio Melo, of East Providence, Chris Blazejewski of Providence, Michael Marcello of Scituate and Steve Ucci of Johnston. That faction probably made a mistake by not having a united front established; it changed speaker candidates  from Ucci, to Blazejewski, to Marcello.

There was some ideology to all this; most of the younger liberal members of the House were against Mattiello. But as is usually the case, some of this campaign was driven by the old Statehouse saw – that personal relationships, regional interests and the what-are-you gonna-do-for-me syndrome had as much to do with the Mattiello  victory as anything.

After a weekend of intrigue, trilling cell phones and private meetings around the state, Mattiello announced late Sunday evening that he had secured enough votes to win election as speaker when the House convenes again on Tuesday.

Marcello has vowed to fight until the end, but it is not clear how he intends to get Democrats to break their commitments to Mattiello or how to peel the Republican caucus away. Marcello said he would immediately move to take action on such prickly issues as abolishing the master lever ,  abolishing high-interest rate `payday'  loans and  investigating the 38 Studios farce. This all sounds good to the public, but lawmakers do NOT like to  face difficult votes in an election year, or any year.

Winning the speaker’s gavel is one thing, governing the House is another. Everyone who becomes speaker has to promise allies such positions as committee chairs and patronage appointments. Assuming Mattiello takes over, he has some decisions to make that could affect the current session. He has already purged Frank Anzeveno, the former North Providence state rep who has been a longtime power at the State House, serving as chief of staff to the last three speakers, including Fox.

This sweep will continue as  top staffers loyal to Fox will be dumped and  committee chairs who were close to Fox and went with the other faction, including Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Edie Ajello, D-Providence and House Finance Chairman Melo, and Labor Committee Chairwoman Anastasia Williams, D-Providence are also gone. Word is that Melo, Ajello and Williams have already cleaned out their offices to make way for Mattiello loyalists.

Whether the House has a smooth session or not depends somewhat on whether the anti-Mattiello group caves and go along with the Cranston Democrat, or whether they decide to gum up the works, fill the floor with frivolous debate and carry their fight into the September primaries and November general elections.

This mid-session speaker battle could upset the running of the House in an election year. One element of Fox’s four-year tenure has been consistency and consensus. The Providence Democrat has been a seeker of consensus and with a few exceptions, has forged widespread support among the Democratic reps who control the House by an overwhelming margin.

There was scant intrigue the last two times the speaker’s office changed hands. Longtime Speaker John Harwood seamlessly passed the leadership to William Murphy, D- West Warwick. Harwood and Murphy later had a falling out, but it occurred only after the speaker’s gavel had changed hands without a battle royal.

Then in 2010, when Murphy thought it was time to leave, the transfer of power to Fox was greased. The only thing that some House observers noticed that Murphy make taking Mattiello as  majority leader a condition of support for Fox.

Murphy was the exception. He was of the few top Statehouse leaders in nearly four decades who left without a cloud of controversy. When he stepped down in 2010, with his reputation intact, his wife Stacy Murphy, said, only half-in jest, that she was proud of her husband because he was never indicted, never lost an election or an important floor vote and was never publicly linked with a goumada.

Since the 1970s, top State House leaders have left under  clouds of suspicion or outright criminal activity. That was the case with Speakers Ed Manning and Joseph Bevilacqua, who became chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and was forced out for his association with criminals.  Former Speaker Matthew Smith move from the speaker’s chair to a job as state court administrator, but was forced out in a patronage scandal.

Joseph DeAngelis, who came after Smith, got caught in the backwash of the 1991 credit union collapse and decided against running for reelection. Allies of DeAngelis lost the House leadership to a faction headed by John Harwood of Pawtucket and George Caruolo of East Providence. Harwood and Caruolo later had a falling and Harwood lost reelection from his district after allegations- never proven – that he had sex with a female Statehouse aide named Wendy Collins.

Gerard Martineau of Woonsocket, another House Majority Leader under Harwood, ended up in prison after fraud. Sen. William Irons of East Providence, stepped down as Senate president after allegations of influence peddling. Sen. John Celona of North Providence also served jail time or improperly using his influence on Smith Hill.

The sad thing for Fox is that on his watch, lawmakers successfully tackled major public pension overhaul, pushed a historic education funding formula into law and enacted a same-sex marriage law with help from Gov. Lincoln Chafee and a strong lobbying effort by Rhode Island labor unions and gay rights activists.

None of that means anything now. It appears that Fox, Rhode Island’s first African-American and first openly gay speaker, will go down as another in the gallery of rouges that have too often dominated politics in Rhode Island.

Now it is up to Mattiello and his allies to decide which episode of this soap opera they want.