Jeff Britt, a well-known Rhode Island political operative, was found not guilty Wednesday of two charges related to outgoing House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s 2016 campaign, including a felony count of money laundering.

In a brief hearing in Kent County Superior Court, Judge Daniel Procaccini called Rhode Island’s money-laundering law constitutionally deficient and he said prosecution witnesses lacked credibility.

With Britt appearing via video link from Florida, the judge summarized what he said were his three conclusions in the case.

The money laundering statute, Procaccini said, “is constitutionally deficient in that it violates the due process guarantee that the language in the statute must provide an adequate warning to a person of ordinary intelligence that his conduct is illegal by common understanding and practice.”

The statute “is void for vagueness, and grants defendant’s motion to dismiss count one” the felony count of money laundering.

Procaccini added that even if he found that the money-laundering statute was not deficient, the court’s “review of the testimony as a whole and in particular, the testimony of certain critical witnesses was not credible or trustworthy and fell woefully short of proving the money-laundering offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt, thus requiring a finding of not guilty on count one.”

On the misdemeanor count of making a prohibited a campaign contribution, Procaccini said “the critical evidence offered to prove this offense was not sufficiently credible or trustworthy and requires a finding of not guilty.”

“Good luck to you, Mr. Britt,” Procaccini said in concluding the hearing.

Britt’s lawyer, Robert Corrente, maintained from the start that the state’s case against his client was overcharged.

In a statement, Corrente cited how Procaccini's 34-page written decision noted how one major witness "the campaign manager for Speaker Mattiello – was not even questioned by the Board of Elections or by the Grand Jury."

Corrente added, "Today’s ruling ends a case that, as we have stated from the outset, should never have been brought in the first place. Mr. Britt has had his life and career unfairly upended for more than a year. We are hopeful that the lessons from Judge Procaccini’s opinion will prevent a repetition of this sad spectacle, and Mr. Britt looks forward to getting on with his career as Rhode Island’s top political consultant."

The week-long trial this fall revealed the underside of Rhode Island politics, including how a private detective working on behalf of Mattiello’s campaign surveilled the speaker’s GOP opponent in 2016, Steve Frias.

Frias praised prosecutors for their work.

"I would like to thank Attorney General Neronha and his team for bringing this case, which showed the people the kind of dirty campaign run by Rhode Island's most powerful politician," Frias said in a statement. "It is always a challenge for the prosecution to convict one unsavory character of a crime, in this case Mr. Britt, based primarily on the testimony of another shady character, in this case Mr. Pichette. Although the judge was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Britt had committed a crime, in a sense, justice had already been served. The people of my community rendered their own verdict in November by removing from office the man ultimately responsible for all of Mr. Britt’s sleazy actions, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello."

While it’s difficult to gauge the precise impact of the trial, it was seen as a negative factor for Mattiello, who got decisively beat by Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung while seeking re-election to his state representative seat last month.

Patti Doyle, a spokeswoman for Mattiello’s campaign, said he would not comment on the verdict.

Britt, who has worked for a series of well-known Democrats and Republicans in Rhode Island, had previously turned down a plea bargain calling for a five-year sentence with 18 months to serve and a fine.

In a statement, Attorney General Peter Neronha said he respected the court’s decision.

“In October of 2019, I believed that it was important to bring this case, as charged, and remain convinced of that today,” Neronha said. “This case was about one thing: standing behind Rhode Island’s campaign finance transparency laws, and the Board of Elections’ ability to enforce them. The public has a right to know who really is providing support to candidates for public office. That transparency allows them to judge the motivations of those who support and endorse candidates, and to recognize potential conflicts of interest, before and after an election.

“Whether a case involves $1,000, or more than that, is of no moment,” Neronha continued. “What matters are these core principles of electoral integrity and whether we are prepared to defend them, through the legal tools at our disposal, or not.

Finally, Neronha said, “Notwithstanding the outcome in this case, this Office will continue to aggressively fight for transparency and integrity in our elections. The evidence introduced at trial plainly demonstrated just how critical that fight is. Politics doesn’t need to be a dirty business. It doesn’t need to involve soliciting fake donors to create an illusion of an independent endorsement. It doesn’t need to involve complex schemes designed to deceive voters.”



Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org