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Sabina Matos breaks silence on nomination signature collection scandal
“Let me be clear: I did not ask for that. I did not need this. This doesn't help me or my campaign..."
See my other Congressional District One race interviews here:
See my other articles on the Congressional District One race interviews here:
After a week of silence, Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos held a press conference on Friday at 6 pm to address the nomination signature collection scandal that has rocked her campaign for Congressional District One. It is alleged that some paid campaign staffers forged signatures of dead people and the names of sitting East Providence City Councilmembers. Signatures collected in at least three municipalities are now under investigation.
The Lieutenant Governor’s press conference was scheduled about an hour after the Rhode Island Board of Elections [BOE] rejected a rival campaign challenging the validity of the Matos campaign signatures. That challenge was never officially heard by the BOE, but they did issue a ruling at the beginning of the meeting asking for the Attorney General to investigate the signatures.
Here’s the full Matos press briefing:
The briefing began with Attorney Jon Berkon, a DC-based elections lawyer, explaining the decision of the BOE regarding the complaint brought by the Campaign of Donald Carlson.
“Today, as everyone saw, the Board of Elections denied and rejected the objection that was raised to the Lieutenant Governor's qualification for the ballot,” said Attorney Berkon. “The lieutenant governor is on the ballot. She had been already qualified for the ballot by the Secretary of State. After the boards of canvassers across the state have reviewed the petitions and signatures and today the Board of Elections confirmed that. The Lieutenant Governor will be on the ballot.”
The actual Board of Elections decision was more nuanced. Towards the end of the Board of Elections meeting, the Carlson complaint was rejected on statutory grounds, since none of the people making the complaint were present in the room. Here’s the video:
Attorney Berkon characterized this decision more broadly in response to a reporter’s question.
Reporter: Was the campaign truly exonerated or was the charge dropped because of the lack of presence of a qualified individual to pursue the charge?
Jon Berkon: I think, Mr. Marcacio, the counsel for the Board, was indicating there were multiple reasons that this objection was going to be dismissed. [The lack of presence of a qualified individual to pursue the charge] was one of them. [The complaint] wasn't signed and they did not object to enough signatures to drop Lieutenant Governor below 500… 534 signatures remain unchallenged, that were accepted by the Boards of Canvassers across the state that were accepted by the Secretary of State's office and were not challenged in the complaint. So that if [the complaint] had proceeded to the merits, that would've been the ruling.
Earlier, the Board of Elections made a more serious determination after meeting in executive session:
“After discussion by the board, a motion was made by Vice Chair [David] Sholes to refer all nomination papers submitted on behalf of candidate Sabina Matos for a review and appropriate investigation by the Attorney General with a report back to the board no later than 30 days hence, if possible,” said BOE Legal Counsel Raymond Marcaccio, reporting out the vote of the board. “That motion was seconded by [Louis] DeSimone [Jr.]. Five members voted in favor: Chair [Diane] Mederos, Vice Chair Sholes, Board members [Jennifer] Johnson, DeSimone, and [Michael] Connors. One Opposed: [Randall] Jackvony. The motion carried five to one.”
At her press conference, Lieutenant Governor Matos made the following statement:
“I want to begin by thanking the people of Rhode Island for their patience as we have been working to understand this situation. While we do not know every detail, I want to share what we know. After the statement, my team and I are happy to answer your questions. This week we have heard reports that a vendor, hired by my campaign to help collect signatures, engaged in a widespread and outrageous attempt to defraud my campaign, the people of Rhode Island, and the Democratic process.
“Let me be clear: I did not ask for that. I did not need this. This doesn't help me or my campaign. Nonetheless, this betrayal of trust was in the name of my campaign, and for that, I am deeply sorry that this happened. I hold myself and everyone on my campaign to the highest ethical standards. My campaign provided clear instructions to this vendor and everyone who collected signatures for us. These individuals disregarded our campaign's instructions. They betrayed the trust of my campaign and may have broken the law.
“That vendor has been fired. I have ordered my campaign to prepare all relevant documents for the Attorney General's investigation. Anyone who has broken the law must be held accountable for their actions.
“I came to this country when I was a young woman because I knew that America was the country where everybody's voice was heard. This is the greatest democracy on earth and that's why I'm so disappointed that some of my opponents have spent this past week politicizing this unfortunate event for their political gain. These guys didn't have the facts. No one did. This fraud hurt all of us, and using it for political attacks to try to help themselves is shameful.
“I expect these Washington-style attacks from the MAGA Republicans, but not from my fellow Democrats who I have always treated with respect. Rhode Islanders want us focused on them, not fighting with each other. That's why I have been running a positive campaign talking about the issues that Congress needs to address. Good jobs, reproductive freedom, common sense gun safety, and protecting our rights, our freedom, and our democracy. I have served in public office for 12 years as a city councilor, as council president, and now as lieutenant governor. I have the experience and the record to make a difference in Congress on day one.”
Asked which candidates in particular she felt were attacking her unfairly, Matos declined to say. She also declined to say which campaigns reached out to offer her support.
Sabina Matos: Some of them, I have to say, have been very decent, and have expressed some support and understanding for what I'm going through, and I want to thank them. I'm not going to share names unless they're okay with it.
Reporter: What about the ones who you believe have politicized this? Will you identify those candidates by name?
Sabina Matos: You covered a press conference this morning for one of them. I think they were trying to get as much as they could out of the situation for free publicity.
Matos was referring to candidate Gabe Amo, who held a 10 am press conference outside the Board of Elections. Here’s the video:
After the Sabina Matos press conference, the Amo Campaign released the following statement:
“The Lt. Governor can liken honest questions and repeated calls for accountability to MAGA Republicans if she wants. There is nothing out of bounds about calling for our leaders to answer the concerns of the people they seek to lead.
“It won’t change the fact that instead of immediately addressing the criminal investigation into her campaign, she took an entire work week to address the issue and then threw a seemingly unregistered ‘vendor’ under the bus in hopes of moving on.
“After last night, I am left with more unanswered questions than before.
“This issue continues to be a distraction. I had hoped that we would move on and get back to talking about the issues that matter to hardworking Rhode Islanders as they select a new member of Congress.”
Reporters at the press conference had many questions. Here are some highlights. Multiple reporters asked questions, they are listed below as simply “Reporter.”
Reporter: This has thrown your campaign into chaos. You have an AG criminal investigation. How can you run an effective campaign when the specter of both criminal and procedural investigations is hanging over you?
Sabina Matos: The people in Rhode Island know me. I have a track record that they can look at. They know the work that I have done, first at the local level in the city council and now as lieutenant governor. So I'm confident that we're going to be running a strong campaign and we're going to win this campaign.
Reporter: The campaign does stop with you. Will you remain in office as lieutenant governor if there are criminal charges under your campaign?
Sabina Matos: Let's be clear. My campaign is not under investigation. A vendor that my campaign hired is under investigation
Campaign Manager Brexton Isaacs: The vendor was not paid per signature. The field workers were paid on an hourly basis.
Reporter: Were there background checks done on any of these folks before they were hired or any type of criminal checks before they were put out of the street to collect signatures?
Brexton Isaacs: We trust that the vendors that we hire work with integrity and work with honesty.
Reporter: The person who submitted some of these forms worked for the McKee campaign that you were also the manager of. So these people were not strangers. You knew who they were.
Brexton Isaacs: Some of the folks involved with the vendor were well-known field workers in democratic politics.
Reporter: What are you suggesting happened here? Do you think they purposefully did something wrong?
Brexton Isaacs: We're not in a position to speculate and we don't have enough information to speculate as to the motivation here. All we can say is that they broke our trust and clearly did not follow the instructions we gave them on how to properly collect signatures.
Reporter: What was she paid to do for the McKee campaign?
Brexton Isaacs: I, unfortunately, can't speak to that.
Reporter: She was paid though. What was she paid to do?
Brexton Isaacs: Fieldwork, phone banking, and canvassing.
Sabina Matos: Every campaign hires staff to help them do field work and collect signatures. What happened to my campaign? We don't know the details yet. We don't know what happened. You asked the question, was that intentional? I don't know. I cannot answer that. We have to wait to find out what is going to be determined, but we don't have the answer about what happened and it's too early for my opponents or anybody else to be making accusations that they don't have the facts for.
My guiding principle in public office is I will never do anything that is going to make my parents feel ashamed of the work that I have done or that my children will have to pay for. So yes, I'm going to defend my name and my family name to the end and I'm going to stay in this campaign because they need people like me to go to Washington and fight for every Rhode Islander and to be an example for little girls that get so happy when I go to see them in Woonsocket because they see someone that looks like them in an elected office. So yes, I'm running this campaign to the end.
We relied on volunteers and also some paid field workers. If you ask any other campaign, they do the same thing. We have not done anything intentionally. We have not done anything to defraud the people of Rhode Island. We were victims of someone that, unfortunately, we trusted and they didn't follow our instructions.
Reporter: Weren't there two workers that did this?
Sabina Matos: We hired a vendor and the vendor hired others.
Reporter: I'm not exactly sure what a vendor is. Is that an intermediary between you and the people who are doing the work? How does that work?
Jon Berkon: The vendor was Ms. McLaren's firm Harmony Solutions.
Reporter: How many people did they hire to work for them under the contract?
Jon Berkon: That's not information that I don't think any of us know.
Reporter: Why wait this long to speak about this to address this and why not get out in front of it?
Sabina Matos: I wanted to wait for the Board of Elections to go through the process. I didn't want to [get] ahead of it. Plus, honestly, we have been trying to figure out what's going on. We're trying to get get more information. I'm giving you whatever we know right now... Reporters were reaching out to my campaign. They wanted a statement. It was not right for me to give any statement or comments directly to the media before the Board made their decision.
Jon Berkon: We are reading the reports that are coming in. I think the complaints identified 41 forms that Ms. McLaren submitted. We have no way of knowing how many signatures on those forms are valid signatures that she witnessed versus ones that are not valid. That is why the Attorney General is investigating.
Reporter: So you don't know how many signatures are fraudulent?
Jon Berkon: No, we don't know how many signatures [are fraudulent].
Brexton Isaacs: She was somebody who was well known, a well-known field worker in past campaigns, and at the time she had a reputation for doing good work. When we were looking at folks to do fieldwork in this campaign, we had trust that they would act with integrity and honesty and obviously, that was misplaced.
Sabina Matos: That's the part that hurts me the most. I have worked really hard to do the right thing and to make sure that I do politics the right way. To have my name associated with this, it hurts me, but most importantly, it worries me that the voters may not have faith in the democratic process.
Brexton Isaacs: The vendor had begun work just a couple of weeks ago. They had been doing work for a period of fewer than two weeks. There was a plan to hire somewhere in the ballpark of six workers. They had just begun that recruitment process. We requested the records on who they ultimately recruited, hired, and paid. We don't have that yet. We're seeking to find that now.
Jon Berkon: There was no written contract with the vendor.
Reporter: You waited until this afternoon before you made this statement, which means that you were safely on the ballot before you decided to speak out in a press conference like this. It feels like you were holding off until you knew you were safe before you spoke to the press.
Sabina Mato: No, I would say I was holding off until the decision of the Board. It's two different things.
Reporter: But it equivocates to being safe. Like you were called safe at home and then you said, okay, now I can talk.
Sabina Matos: I could not guess what the decision of the board was going to be.
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Here’s the full video of Friday’s Board of Elections hearing:
Update, August 1, 2023: Secretary of State Gregg Amore to submit legislation strengthening the signature verification process
Secretary of State Gregg M. Amore issued the following statement on August 1, 2023:
“The findings in recent weeks demonstrate that signature review processes for ballot qualification are working as intended. I want to thank the local boards of canvassers and their staff for their diligence throughout this process. Because of the strength of our systems at both the local and state level, I am confident in the integrity of our elections. However, the ongoing conversations around this issue make it clear that improvements are needed in order to ensure voter confidence in the process.
“In the 2024 legislative session, my office plans to introduce legislation requiring the Board of Elections to implement an automatic review process if local cities and towns suspect forgery or other intentional misrepresentations on nomination papers. The process must include the referral of the nomination papers or signatures in question to the Board of Elections for review, as well as a notification procedure through which the Board of Elections can alert other cities and towns of a potential issue.
“As I have previously stated, I believe the Board of Elections already has the power to conduct an independent signature review, but the codification of a strong, standardized process to address challenges or suspected issues as they arise would leave no question that the Board of Elections is authorized to act in such a situation.
“Last session, my office advocated for an earlier primary date due to the concern of a disputed primary impacting our ability to get general election ballots out on time. Over the past two weeks, we have seen how the ballot qualification process can also threaten our compliance with the deadline to issue mail ballots to military and overseas voters under federal law. Therefore, my office will continue to advocate to hold the primary at an earlier date, but also to extend the timeframe to collect, review, and challenge signatures.
“My office is committed to working with the General Assembly and the Board of Elections to put these improvements in place which will strengthen our existing systems, as well as voter confidence in our elections.”