House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and a string of state representatives on Tuesday excoriated a front page Providence Sunday Journal editorial about community service grants that was published last weekend, saying it misrepresented the legislative process and was based on false assumptions.
The editorial -- headlined, "Who Does Speaker Mattiello Think He's Fooling? Hearings Insult Rhode Islanders' Intelligence" -- called a series of subcommittee meetings last week "cynical show hearings" that "came across as nothing but a dog-and-pony exhibition, an insult to the intelligence of most Rhode Islanders, a fraud, a farce."
The editorial said many subcommittee members were absent, "leaving Rep. Eileen Naughton, D-Warwick, a shameless apologist for leadership, all alone to 'probe' the requests for taxpayer dollars."
Mattiello and other lawmakers said the characterization of lawmakers missing en masse was off-base. Rep. Carlos Tobon (D-Pawtucket) had two days of Coast Guard service, and Marvin Abney (D-Newport) no longer serves on subcommittees since being appointed as Finance Committee chairman. Also, Mattiello said, the hearings on community service grants were scheduled in the early afternoon to make it easier for the public to attend. He said lawmakers have a difficult time attending such hearings due to their jobs, but that they catch up afterwards.
For her part, Naughton said, "I will make no apology for showing courtesy to the many people who came before House Finance and came to testify. I listened to them intently, to what they had to say, and did what any legislator would do. I treated them with courtesy, dignity and respect. I'll repeat that: dignity, courtesy and respect."
The resignation of former House Finance chairman Ray Gallison of Bristol has raised the focus on community service grants since an education nonprofit that employed Gallison received more than $2 million in grants over a course of many years. Gallison is linked to an ongoing federal investigation.
Last week, with the hearings under way, one GOP lawmaker questioned whether the process of hearing from grant recipients was an effective way of answering questions about the grant program.
Referring to the hearings on the grants, the ProJo editorial asked, "Who does the speaker think he’s fooling? Everyone reasonably familiar with the activities of the legislature knows why leadership wants the grants: Those in power can use someone else’s dollars — the taxpayers’ — to dole out goodies to favored groups that help these incumbents get reelected, without putting this spending through the vetting and balancing tests of a legitimate appropriation process. This is rank enough, but the system has evidently metastasized into funneling money directly to legislators and other allies working for dubious nonprofit groups. If crimes have been committed in this manner, we hope federal authorities bring an iron fist down on the perpetrators."
After a series of reps expressed their anger and frustration about the editorial, Mattiello weighed in, calling it, "extremely misleading and false."
Abney, he said, "is in this building constantly, he's working on the budget around the clock, and to suggest that he was not here because he didn't care about the process is simply false, it's wrong, it's insulting. He was here. I know he was here, and he was doing something else on the budget."
Mattiello said the editorial made him embarrassed for the Providence Journal. He said he was unaware of what was proceeding at the hearings, and that they were organized by the Finance Committee. "I am not going to apologize to giving the public a voice to come in and testify why they think their needs are important," he said. "That is the right of the public and this is the public's house, and we will listen to them every time they want to come in here."
Journal Executive Editor David Butler offered this comment to the ProJo:
"I was glad to see the speaker admit that, and I quote, 'the grants are a political mess.' What confuses me is how he's going to determine what to do, because at the hearings virtually no questions were asked and several committee members didn't show up. What kind of hearing or audit is that?"
Butler went on to say, "I might remind the Assembly that the recent episode began when the House Finance Committee chairman resigned his seat following reports of a widening investigation. This was not something the media made up. Nor is the fact that some 30 lawmakers have had to resubmit their ethics forms because of mistakes they made."
Lawmakers have periodically taken to the floor of their respective chambers to criticize Providence Journal editorials over the years, although more frequently in the past than recently.
This post has been updated.