House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) on Friday called for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to launch a House Oversight investigation into whether the state Department of Transportation pressured state reps to support the new truck toll law ahead of the House vote earlier this week.
In a letter to Mattiello, Newberry wrote, "It has come to my attention that several Democratic members of the House have written letters to constituents explaining their support for the recent tolling legislation by, in part, expressing fear that if they did not support the bill RIDOT might retaliate against their districts by, among other things, slowing down or stalling needed repair work and similar projects. If these members have indeed been pressured it is an outrageous abuse of power by the Executive branch. When I first heard of this last evening I dismissed it as unlikely but then I recalled that the bridge over which you drive to your office was mysteriously closed by RIDOT immediately after you announced your opposition to the original toll plan last spring."
In a statement, Mattiello said the concerns are without a basis in fact.
"I appreciate the concerns expressed by Leader Newberry," Mattiello said. "However, I have looked into the situation and if this issue was based on actual facts, I would request that an oversight hearing be held. I have learned that the letter was written by a few Representatives based on their own personal concerns and not on any actions taken by the DOT. I have found the DOT, under the new leadership of Director [Peter] Alviti, to be very accommodating to the Representatives and the public.”
House lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to approve the truck toll plan on Wednesday, a day before it was passed by the Senate and signed into law by Governor Gina Raimondo.
Update: After this story broke, Mattiello's office released statements from Reps. Mia Ackerman (D-Cumberland) and Patricia Serpa (D-West Warwick), in an effort to elaborate on what Ackerman called a misunderstanding:
From Representative Mia Ackerman:
“All the Representatives have been contacted by constituents and one of my colleagues wrote a letter that I liked. I reworked it and gave it to my secretary, but unfortunately she didn’t make the changes I asked for, as evidenced by the wrong district number appearing in the letter. It went out to about a dozen people before I could correct the letter. I have never spoken to anyone at DOT or elsewhere in state government that made me feel uncomfortable. I feel badly about the misunderstanding that occurred.”
From Representative Patricia Serpa:
“I have always found DOT to be pleasant and responsive in my dealings with them. I wrote in the letter that my request may get shuffled to the bottom of the pile based solely on human nature, and not on any knowledge that I had.”
Newberry said that his own interactions with DOT have been above-board.
"I want to stress that all my dealings with RIDOT and in particular their legislative staff over the years have been nothing but professional and in fact their legislative lobbyist has been one of the best and most helpful I have dealt with," the minority leader wrote. "I myself have seen no whiff of this pressure. That said, it is quite possible that RIDOT officials are being pressured by higher ranking members of the Executive branch and/or that other Executive branch officials are indeed making quiet threats of this nature. Either way the public deserves a full explanation from the Executive branch and it in the interest of all House members to have this issue publicly aired out."
In related news, Mattiello changed the committee assignments of three House Democrats who voted against the truck toll plan, Reps. Ray Hull of Providence, Robert Phillips of Woonsocket, and Joseph Solomon of Warwick.
Hull was bounced from the Finance Committee, Solomon from Judiciary, and Phillips from Corporations, although Hull was added to the less coveted Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.
In a statement, here's how Mattiello explained the changes: “I am always assessing the operations of the House of Representatives. I have expectations for everyone in their respective roles. I made the determination that changes were necessary in the committee structure to best serve the citizens of the state to move their agenda forward.”
This post has been updated.