House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello expressed sharp frustration about the circumstances that led House Finance Chairman Ray Gallison to resign Tuesday, while voicing confidence in the House of Representatives and the chamber's ability to revise the state budget without delay.
Mattiello said Rhode Islanders are right to be upset about the periodic legal problems faced by a string of lawmakers over recent years.
"I understand the frustration," the speaker told reporters after Tuesday's House session. "You should be frustrated, I'm frustrated. Every member in this room is frustrated and I can see it on their face, and they should be -- they're angered. I'm angered. I'm, I'm next to outraged, because quite frankly, as much as I like talking to all of you, I'd rather be talking about some policy initiatives that we're enacting to move the state forward, not this."
Gallison's seat remained empty as a resignation letter he submitted was ready into the House record. The one sentence letter said due to "personal reasons" Gallison, 64, was immediately retiring from the Bristol seat he held since first winning election in 2000.
State and federal investigators declined comment on Gallison, although Mattiello said he believes the former lawmaker to be the subject of a federal investigation.
Gallison has a law office in Fall River, Massachusetts, and has worked as assistant director of a nonprofit called Alternative Educational Programming, which has received tens of thousands of dollars in state grants. Mattiello said an audit of that grant program is underway. Asked if it's ever appropriate for the General Assembly to be giving a grant that pays the salary of a legislator, he said, "No."
Mattiello acknowledged that Gallison's precipitous exit and the circumstances that led to it overshadow the efforts of the House of Representatives.
The speaker said his first indication of Gallison having a problem came up late last week.
Mattiello said he learned that Gallison had canceled a fundraiser, "so my chief of staff went down to reschedule the fundraiser and he [Gallison] had no interest in that, so I began to get very suspicious that there was something going on that I had no knowledge of."
Mattiello said he arranged a meeting this past Sunday with his chief of staff, Leo Skenyon, and Gallison at the Newport Creamery at Garden City in Cranston. (Mattiello said he did not eat during the encounter, although Skenyon had an Awful Awful, a signature concoction at Newport Creamery.)
Gallison "indicated he did have some legal problems that he was addressing, and we talked about his next steps and his need, at that point, to at least resign as the chair of Finance, or I would have been prepared to remove him," Mattiello said. "He indicated that he had an attorney, and upon advice, he was going to resign from the House generally. I purposefully did not get into a lot of specific detail, because quite frankly, I do not want to know the detail. That's for the authorities to know, and that's the appropriate individuals to know that."
Mattiello said Gallison indicated "there was a problem, and it was serious." The speaker said he has heard rumors that Gallison's decision to step down is linked to prostitution, although he said he did not discuss that with him.
The speaker said his impression that the matter involving Gallison "is personal and that it involves personal finances, or business finances, very generally speaking."
In terms of some lawmakers running into legal trouble on an ongoing basis, Mattiello described that as a function of "when you get a large group of people together .... you put enough people together, you're going to have some people that make bad decisions that they have to pay their price to society for."
Yet the speaker also said the problems have been too frequent in the 75-member House.
Mattiello became speaker in 2014, following the resignation of his predecessor, Gordon Fox, who is now imprisoned on corruption charges. A series of other lawmakers have run into less serious legal problems in recent years.
The speaker said he has no reason to believe any other lawmakers are involved in the investigation looking at Gallison. Mattiello said he was very surprised -- "shocked, shocked" to learn of the probe, although Gallison has previously paid fines to settle separate cases with the state Board of Elections and the state Ethics Commission.
"When I look out at the House of Representatives, I see a lot of people working very hard for their communities, that have a lot of integrity," the speaker said. But I don't go home with them at night, and I don't hang -- sometimes I have colleagues that I'm friendly with -- but at the end of the day, everyone has their private lives, as you all do, so I don't know what they do there."
Mattiello announced that Rep. Marvin Abney (D-Newport) will succeed Gallison as Finance chairman, and expressed confidence that the House budget process will move ahead without interruption. The House takes the lead in revising the budget introduced by the governor, usually passing it in June, ahead of the July 1 start of the next fiscal year.
The speaker said his proposal to bolster ethics enforcement of lawmakers, planned before Gallison's problems emerged, may be introduced as soon as this week.
This post has been updated.