PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The FBI has joined an investigation into the controversial multimillion-dollar education contract that the McKee administration awarded last year to the ILO Group, a politically connected consulting firm.
Matt Sheaff, a spokesperson for Gov. Dan McKee’s office, confirmed the federal involvement in the investigation on Thursday. He indicated it was an expansion of a probe into the contract that Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office opened last year.
The ILO contract — aimed at assisting with reopening schools during the pandemic as well as opening new municipal education offices — has been a political albatross for McKee since Target 12 first revealed its existence last September. The governor has maintained that the deal was awarded appropriately and has criticized news coverage of the matter.
“We’ve been made aware that the attorney general is partnering with the U.S. Attorney’s Office on the ILO review,” Sheaff said in a statement. “As we’ve said previously, we’re fully cooperating with this review.”
Target 12 has learned federal and state investigators began partnering on the ILO probe within the last two months.
Spokespersons for the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment. A lawyer for ILO, former Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente, said he had no comment at this time.
The governor attended a fundraiser Thursday evening for his campaign at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Warwick, but left out a side door before a reporter could ask him about the FBI news.
ILO was incorporated two days after McKee took office by a subordinate of Michael Magee Jr., a longtime outside adviser of the governor’s. Magee wrote the initial blueprint for the contract and participated in a Zoom meeting with state procurement officials where he mentioned ILO the day after its founding.
The contract, valued at up to $5.2 million, was won by ILO after an unusual bidding process that later drew scrutiny from legislative oversight committees. Lawmakers expressed concern that the company had an inside track due to political connections.
Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Lou DiPalma, who has been critical of the ILO deal, said in a statement: “This is a situation which did not need to or should not have come to this. As stated at the Senate Oversight hearing re: the corresponding RFP process, this procurement should have been cancelled and re-procured.” (RFP is short for “request for proposals.”)
ILO billed the state a total of $1.8 million before its contract ended late last year. The McKee administration allocated money from federal coronavirus relief funds to cover the contract’s costs.
McKee’s political rivals quickly pounced on news of the federal role in the ILO investigation.
Former Secretary of State Matt Brown, one of the Democrats challenging McKee in this year’s gubernatorial primary, issued a statement criticizing the governor.
“Last year, as Rhode Islanders struggled to afford their basic needs like housing and health care, Governor McKee awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to a consulting firm tied to one of his top campaign donors,” Brown said. “I hope the FBI will get to the bottom of what happened.”
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, another Democratic candidate for governor, tweeted: “Rhode Islanders deserve better.”
A third Democratic candidate, Helena Foulkes, said: “For many Rhode Islanders, this story feels all too familiar — yet another career politician finds himself in the shadow of an FBI investigation. Once again, Dan McKee has shown that he cares more about enriching his well-connected friends than serving the people of our state. How can Rhode Islanders possibly trust him now?”
R.I. Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki called McKee “simply another corrupt entrenched politician that is more interested in lining the pockets of his close associates than helping struggling Rhode Islanders.”
Ted Nesi ([email protected]) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.