Campaign worker charged in Matos signature scandal investigation

A 45-year-old Johnston man faces criminal charges in connection with the signature scandal that derailed Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos’s failed congressional campaign last year.

R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office Monday afternoon announced that one Matos campaign worker so far has been charged with two felony counts of falsely making a nomination paper, and two misdemeanor counts of submitting nomination papers to election officials containing information known to be false.

Christopher Cotham pleaded not guilty to the charges at his arraignment March 27 in Providence Superior Court. Cotham is scheduled to be back in court for a pre-trial conference on Thursday.

Matos’s nomination papers came under scrutiny last July after three municipal boards of canvassers flagged fake signatures on documents many said they never signed. Others included signatures of dead people.

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The signature scandal quickly dominated the campaign of Matos, who was initially seen as the front-runner in the 11-candidate Democratic primary. Matos ended up finishing fourth, with Gabe Amo winning the primary. Amo went on to win the First District congressional seat in November.

Neronha said the investigation is incomplete and declined to comment when asked if charges were likely to be filed against Holly McClaren, whose firm Harmony Solutions was contracted by the Matos campaign to conduct a signature drive for her nomination papers to run for the congressional seat.

“I can’t speak to whether there will be additional charges or additional defendants, but the investigation continues,” Neronha said.

Cotham told police that he had known McClaren since 2013. He said she told him he would be paid $2 per signature, but could not remember if he received any instructions on how to obtain signatures.

“He said that it was difficult to get signatures, and a lot of people he encountered did not want to sign the nomination papers,” Rhode Island State Police wrote.

He also said he worked together as a pair with another campaign worker most of the time at locations in East Providence, Bristol, Warren, Jamestown and Newport.

McClaren’s Harmony Solutions was hired to provide “field services,” Matos campaign told police. There was no formal contract or service agreement, but the Matos campaign agreed to pay McClaren $15,000 over the course of three months, with the understanding she would hire subcontractors. McClaren could not be reached for comment.

The Matos campaign’s attorney told police that Harmony Solutions was fired after municipal canvassing officials in Jamestown, Newport and East Providence discovered her nomination papers had the signatures of voters who were deceased. Candidates were required to collect a minimum of 500 certified signatures in order to have their names reach the ballot.

Matos in a statement Monday said she was glad to learn that the investigation by Neronha’s office has taken a step forward.

“It is vital that the people who demeaned Rhode Island’s democratic process are held accountable for their actions,” Matos said. “As I’ve said from day one, this is a serious crime that was perpetrated against Rhode Islanders’ confidence in our state’s free and fair elections, and I am more invested than anyone in a thorough and public investigation.

Janine Weisman is the editor-in-chief for the Rhode Island Current.