Matos breaks silence on signature scandal, pledges to remain in the race

Elections board refers campaign papers to AG; not so fast, Neronha says

By: - July 21, 2023 7:59 pm

Sabina Matos responds to questions from the news media at her campaign headquarters on North Main Street in Providence on Friday, July 21, 2023. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos condemned fellow candidates for using the signature fraud scandal surrounding her campaign for their own political gain, while affirming her commitment to the race, and to voters.

Her comments – breaking silence on the allegations that began swirling earlier this week – came after the Rhode Island Board of Elections affirmed her spot on the Sept. 5 ballot for the 1st Congressional District race. 

Still, Matos’ campaign is hardly in the clear, with the state’s top prosecutor now asked to look into every signature on all 110 nomination forms submitted by her campaign. The elections board by a 5-1 vote Friday afternoon referred the hundreds of signatures gathered on Matos’ behalf to Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office. Board member Randall Jackvony cast the sole vote of opposition.

Who’s to blame for the CD1 signature scandal: The candidate or the process?

Nerohna was already involved in investigating fraud on a few forms, after three separate municipal election groups flagged them for forged signatures of residents – alive and dead.

Matos in a separate press conference Friday night insisted she had no part in the fraudulent papers.

“I did not ask for that,” Matos said. “I did not need this. This did not help me.”

Field worker’s company not registered with state

She alluded multiple times to a “vendor” hired by her campaign – a company called Harmony Solutions run by a woman named Holly McClaren. No record of this business, or any other owned by McClaren, exists in the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s business database. 

McClaren has been linked to at least two of the signature forms under investigation, in Jamestown and Newport. A third form under scrutiny, in East Providence, contains forged signatures collected by a woman named Shanna Gallagher. Gallagher “is believed” to have worked for McClaren’s firm, said Brexton Isaacs, Matos’ campaign manager.

McClaren, and any other hourly field workers brought on through her company for the campaign, have been fired, Isaacs said. 

The Board of Elections decision gives the attorney general’s office 30 days to report back on the findings of its investigation. The decision does not affect Matos’ placement on the ballot, which the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office will be mailing to military and overseas voters in the coming days, Arianna Conti, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, confirmed in an email Friday.

Rhode Island Board of Elections Director Robert Rapoza, left, speaks with the staff attorney, Raymond Marcaccio, right, at the Board of Elections offices on Friday (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

Matos pledged to cooperate fully with the attorney general’s investigation.

“Anyone who broke the law must be held accountable for their actions,” she said.

The signature scandal came to light Monday, when the Jamestown Board of Canvassers met to review suspicious signatures on Matos’ nomination forms that appeared to be the names of dead people. The board asked the town police department to investigate. A day later, the Newport Canvassing Authority followed suit with its police force after finding several discrepancies in residents’ signatures.

A third municipality – East Providence – has also flagged signatures collected on behalf of Matos’ campaign.

Leslie Shattuck-Moore, the East Providence canvassing administrator, said in an interview on Friday that she found forged signatures for the five city council members, along with one member of the city school committee, on Matos’ nomination papers. Several of those forged signatures listed East Providence City Hall as the residents’ home address, Shattuck-Moore said.

She turned over the form in question to city police on Wednesday, who have since referred the investigation over to Neronha’s office, she said.

None of the 28 signatures on the East Providence form in question – including the city elected officials – were counted toward Matos’ signature total, according to a copy of the form obtained by Rhode Island Current.

Unlike the forms in Jamestown and Newport, which were both collected by McClaren, the East Providence sheet of forged signatures was gathered by Gallagher.

The signature of part-time field worker Holly McLaren appears on a nomination form submitted to the Newport Canvassing Authority by the CD1 campaign of Sabina Matos.

Gallagher could not be reached for comment. McClaren has also not returned multiple calls for comment.

Jonathan Berkon, an attorney representing Matos’ campaign, said Friday that even without the signatures in question, Matos has cleared the 500-signature requirement needed to earn a spot on the primary ballot. Matos had 728 certified signatures, according to data with the Secretary of State’s office, which confirms the counts from local boards of canvassers. 

Criticism from opponents

Other candidates in the race have blasted Matos for undermining the election’s integrity, calling on her to address reporters and voters. A few have urged her to drop out.

Matos pushed back Friday, saying she expected those kinds of proclamations from “MAGA Republicans,” but not her fellow Democrats.

“Using this for political attacks to try to help themselves is shameful,” she said.

“I am going to defend my name, and my family name, to the end,” she continued. “And I am going to stay in this campaign because they need people like me in Washington.”

Two groups – Democratic candidate Don Carlson’s campaign and the Rhode Island Working Families Party – filed formal challenges with the state, asking elections officials to take a closer look at more of Matos’ signatures. However, the elections board declined to take up the challenge from Carlson on Friday because his campaign manager, who authored the letter, was not there.

The Working Families Party challenge was also not considered because it was not submitted by the July 19 deadline, according to Raymond Marcaccio, the elections board attorney.

No recounts for four candidates

The elections board also considered, but ultimately denied, challenges from four other candidates asking for recounts of signatures collected in the race.

Three of those candidates, Gregory Mundy, Bella Noka and Larry Hutchinson (all Democrats) asked the state to reconsider the signatures for their own campaigns. The fourth, from Democrat Mickeda Barnes, called for a recount of every candidate’s signatures, including her own.

All four requests were denied by the elections board unanimously. That leaves 14 candidates – 12 Democrats and two Republicans – on the ballot for the upcoming Sept. 5 primary.


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.