Despite new RI House leadership, battle over JCLS control continues

Tray Ling

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. House of Representatives saw leadership change this year, but the battle of control over the controversial committee that oversees the legislature’s $47 million operating budget looks ever the same. A year ago, almost to the date, House Minority Leader Blake Filippi held a State […]

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. House of Representatives saw leadership change this year, but the battle of control over the controversial committee that oversees the legislature’s $47 million operating budget looks ever the same.

A year ago, almost to the date, House Minority Leader Blake Filippi held a State House news conference to criticize top lawmakers in both the state House and Senate for refusing to attend meetings of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services – which oversees and controls General Assembly spending, along with most hiring and firing of legislative staff.

Fast forward to last week, and Filippi’s argument remains largely intact, as the Block Island Republican has accused his fellow legislative leaders of depriving him of his rights as an elected official, House minority leader and committee member, “in violation of the Constitution of the United States of America,” he wrote in an amended legal complaint filed in R.I. Superior Court.  

The committee – a five-member body comprising the majority and minority leaders in both chambers – is chaired by the House speaker, who has traditionally made unilateral decisions through the committee’s executive director.

Former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello

Committee members have not met formally in more than a decade, which became a hot-button issue in the wake of a controversial audit of the R.I. Convention Center ordered in December 2019 by former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello through the committee’s then-executive director Frank Montanaro Jr.

The audit – made at the same time Mattiello’s close friend was embroiled in a personnel issue at the convention center – spurred a grand jury investigation, along with a lawsuit headed by Filippi, who challenged the authority of the committee – known also as the JCLS.

Filippi has since argued – both in and outside of courtrooms – that a majority of JCLS members should have to meet to make General Assembly-related decisions. After the lawsuit was filed, the relationship between Filippi and Mattiello rapidly soured, as the two battled publicly and privately over JCLS-related issues.

This month, retired Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein dealt a blow to Filippi’s push for JCLS reform, entering a long-anticipated decision in the case, saying – in essence – the issue is political, and the court has no place deciding on the underlying accusations as presented.

“The court cannot but personally conclude that [Filippi] should be entitled to some form of relief; however, this court is constrained … to apply existing law,” Silverstein wrote in his decision.

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi

It’s possible the dispute would have ended there, as Mattiello lost his re-election bid in November to Republican challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, ultimately resulting in K. Joseph Shekarchi – a Warwick Democrat and former House Majority Leader – getting the nod from enough of his colleagues to become the new House speaker.  

Filippi was initially pleased with Shekarchi’s pledge that the JCLS would meet regularly, a crux of his legal complaint. But that changed after Shekarchi last month announced he was hiring Henry Kinch as the new JCLS executive director – without calling a meeting or vote.

“It flies in the face of that assurance,” Filippi told Target 12 Monday.

As a result, Filippi last week objected to Silverstein’s ruling, and filed a motion to amend his complaint, claiming he’s been deprived of his rights under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1983.

Filippi’s amended complaint includes Kinch as a co-defendant, and he alleges the former Superior Court clerk is “unlawfully serving as executive director of JCLS.” (Kinch doesn’t technically start his new job until later this month.)

Asked about Filippi’s amended complaint Tuesday, Shekarchi and Senate President Ruggerio released a joint statement praising Silverstein’s decision, calling it “well thought-out, on point and legally sound.” And they pushed back on Filippi’s underlying criticism, arguing the litigation is what’s preventing the JCLS from convening, even though the legal complaint was in at the same time Shekarchi pledged regular meetings would happen.

Dominick Ruggerio_447575
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio

“We will commence regular meetings of the JCLS at the conclusion of litigation,” Shekarchi and Ruggerio said. “We are not going to comment on the specifics of any pending legal complaints.

Filippi also added new House Majority Leader Christopher Blazejewski to the lawsuit’s laundry list of defendants, which — in addition to Mattiello, Montanaro, Ruggerio and Shekarchi — includes Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and State Controller Peter Keenan.  

Unlike the original complaint, which only sough injunctive relief, Filippi is also seeking nominal, statutory, compensatory and punitive damages against the non-legislative defendants.

He said damages are not being sought from the legislative defendants right now because legal precedent suggests the lawmakers may have “legislative immunity,” although he claims that could change as proceedings move along.

He’s also seeking compensation for attorneys fees and costs, along with “any other relief this honorable Court deems just and proper.”

Eli Sherman ([email protected]) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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