Wired: 2002 to 2008 Part 1, A Book by Paul Caranci

Monday, May 08, 2017

 

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Mayor Charles Lombardi

Each week, GoLocalProv will publish a chapter of the book Wired: The Shocking True Story of Political Corruption and the FBI Informant Who Risked Everything to Expose It, by Paul Caranci. 

The book details how Caranci gambled his thirty-year political career, his reputation, and his family’s safety in his quest to restore good, honest government to a community that needed it most by going undercover with the FBI for 17 months to exposed corruption. 

Buy the book by CLICKING HERE

2002 - 2008

REVIEWING THE PROPERTY TAX STRUCTURE

The Council reorganization meeting in January 2001 was very strange indeed. During the Committee assignments, I was appointed to chair the Finance Committee. This struck me as odd for two reasons. First, I had not asked for the chairmanship. Second, “dissidents” such as I had become are appointed to ineffectual committees. The chairmanship of powerful committees such as Finance, Ordinance and Public Safety are generally reserved for those who “play ball.” 

I thought that perhaps it was an olive branch, Bob Ricci’s way of reaching out toward the start of a better relationship. As is usually the case in the political game, however, there was a more pragmatic reason for the appointment. Despite the great power allotted this committee under provisions of the town charter, since my election to the Council in 1994, the Finance Committee was reduced to one of irrelevance. In fact, I could recall only one time in my seven-year tenure on the Council that the committee even met. That fact alone probably accounted for my appointment. 

I, however, was not about to waste the opportunity I had been given. I wanted to activate the Committee once again and actually use it to achieve something good for the town. So in February 2002 I convened the Finance Committee and announced that we would create a subcommittee to review the existing property tax structure and propose recommendations to improve it. I named myself the subcommittee chairman and appointed Sisto, Ricci, and Cook, the other members of the Finance Committee, plus Bob DiStefano, the Town’s Finance Director and Robert Sclama, a local certified public accountant, to serve on the subcommittee. In a statement I wrote:

“I have been considering local tax structure issues since reading various articles in professional journals this year and last. The Town’s recent financial summit of local and state officials drove home how unfair the property tax is especially in light of recurring school deficits projected at $3.7 million and a requested 16 % increase for education spending next year. The time is right to review how the town taxes its residents and the Finance Committee will meet monthly to explore options.”

 

I spoke of the regressive nature of the property tax and how other municipal jurisdictions throughout the country are looking at alternative tax options to replace it. The first meeting featured Dr. Harvey Waxman, founder of Rhode Island Gets Honorable Taxation (RIGHT). The retired doctor is a proponent of the establishment of a “base” year and the setting of a reasonable property valuation and tax rate based on the initial “base” tax for everyone. Once established, subsequent tax changes would be driven solely by the needs of the town, unrelated to, and uninfluenced by property values. All taxpayers would pay the same percentage meaning that those taxed at a higher rate under the current system would still pay greater dollar amounts. The approach had some details that needed to be dissected, but overall, it seemed like an interesting, perhaps even a reasonable plan.

In May, the panel reviewed a Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) solid waste disposal system that removed the cost of trash collection and disposal from the budget, replacing it with an incentive program that allows residents to determine how much they pay for trash disposal based on the amount of waste they dispose of. Under the terms of a PAYT system, residents purchase specially marked trash bags at any local store. A resident that recycles or composts all his/her waste would need no bags and therefore would pay nothing for waste disposal. Likewise, a resident who composts and recycles nothing would need to purchase several bags to meet his disposal needs. A single elderly person, for example, may produce and dispose of much less waste than a family of four. Under the proposed program, that person would pay much less if anything at all. Enacting such a program would remove about $1.8 million per year from the town budget and allow residents to control their own costs similar to the method employed in assessing utility payments. Further, residents were already accustomed to PAYT because that is the method used to dispose of yard waste. For leaves and other yard waste, residents were required to purchase “large brown paper bags,” fill them with waste and leave them curbside to be collected separately from other solid waste.

The North Star published an editorial that read in part:

“Now comes along Councilman Paul F. Caranci with two salient ideas that could alter tax policy in North Providence. We applaud the Councilman as we have previously commended the mayor for taking the bull by the horns, but are left to wonder why it has taken this long. Time, as the saying goes, is money, and North Providence doesn’t have much time to gather more money.”

The Council apparently didn’t share the editor’s enthusiasm. During the reorganization in January 2003 I was removed as chair of the Finance Committee. In fact, I was removed from the entire Committee! Finance very seldom met again until 2010 when Councilman Frank Manfredi assumed the chairmanship. The Tax Revision Subcommittee was in fact disbanded before completing its review or ever writing or releasing a report.

Redefining a Nightclub – Is This for Real?

 

Jack O’Rourke was the owner of Picasso’s Pizza in Warwick. He also once operated a branch of the pizza establishment on Smith Street in North Providence in a building that housed the Limelight Lounge, a frequent nuisance to its Fruit Hill neighborhood. In early 2001 he rented space in the new Fruit Hill Plaza across the street from his prior location. As was the case with the area in which the 7-Eleven sought to locate, the Fruit Hill area was zoned Village Commercial, a designation that prohibits not only chain stores, but nightclubs and bars as well.

O’Rourke applied to the Town Council for a liquor license, a victualing license (needed to serve food), an amusement license and an entertainment license explaining that he was opening an all-you-can-eat pizza and calzone buffet and food take-out and delivery business. O’Rourke told the Council that he planned occasional karaoke, which was the basis for his application for an entertainment license. Expressing concerns over the establishment of a nightclub in the plaza, Council members quizzed O'Rourke on his intentions at the site and asked about the type of business he wanted to open. In what seemed like a perfectly contrived dialogue, O'Rourke said, “This is more like I’m doing a pizza delivery. Also doing a buffet. I have TVs and I’m going to have sporting events…I’m not interested in having a nightclub. It’s the farthest thing from my mind.” 

Ricci intoned, “We want no nightclub atmosphere in there, OK?” “Correct,” O’Rourke responded. Ricci continued, “Anything that resembles a nightclub atmosphere that was across the street, the Limelight, a discotheque or hard rock bands, we want none of that…So we we’re not going to have any nightclub atmosphere in there.” “No,” O’Rourke concluded.

O’Rourke planned to open his facility on July 30th. He claimed to have invested $250,000 into facility renovations and actually made the space very attractive. Expecting to employ about 33 people in the massive 6,800 square foot pub, O’Rourke designed an 88 foot, U-shaped bar at one end of the room. At the other end was a smaller wine and beer bar. Dividing the large cavernous space in half was a large wooden Dee Jay booth and a multi-colored tile dance floor. The high ceilings were painted black and low-level lighting was installed throughout. Rather than the typical booths one might find in a pizza restaurant, all the furniture consisted of high tables and bar stools. There were plans for a jukebox, four pool tables, eight big screen TV’s and several Keno screens. The casual observer could not deny the nightclub appearance and atmosphere. Neither could the town’s inspectors. Even after O’Rourke carpeted over some of the dance floor, Building Officials Leo Perrotta and Leo Bernadino denied the issuance of his occupancy permit saying that the facility was actually a nightclub. In a letter to the Council on July 19th, the inspectors said that they would not issue any certificate of compliance until O’Rourke removes the disc jockey booth and large loudspeakers to comply with the nightclub restriction in the entertainment license. 

In August the Council held a hearing for the purpose of resolving the deadlock. O’Rourke and his family packed the chamber to capacity with 100 friends and patrons from his other establishments. With temperatures approaching 100 degrees in the chambers, O’Rourke and some Council members jousted at times engaging in a testy exchange. “You’re killing me,” O’Rourke angrily shouted as he stormed from the podium. John Sisto proposed “that the council arrange for a tour of the establishment in the hopes of better understanding the issue.” Ricci, who earlier told the reporter, “We have no intention of preventing O’Rourke from opening,” amended Sisto’s motion suggesting “the council recommend that the inspectors issue Picasso’s an occupancy permit while the council reviews whether to issue the entertainment license it voted to approve several months ago.” 

On a 6-1 vote, the Council supported Ricci’s motion. I cast the lone dissenting vote because after meeting with O’Rourke and touring the facility, I agreed that it looked like a nightclub and I did not want to undermine the authority of the inspectors on the issue. Besides, I knew from prior experience that once the facility opened it would be much more difficult to control what goes on in the establishment. 

Fortunately O’Rourke later balked at the Council’s offer telling the reporter that if he opened without the entertainment license he may never get it. His personal feelings aside, he wouldn’t get the option. Perrotta, to his credit, refused to comply with the Council vote saying, “This office is not issuing any certificate of compliance until we go over what Picasso’s is.”  

A week later, on August 15th, Mayor Mollis got involved in the issue meeting with O’Rourke, Chief of Staff John Fleming, Perrotta and Bernadino. Perrotta said of the anticipated meeting, “We are going to explain what the decision is going to be.” 

O’Rourke emerged from the meeting frustrated and the next day told the reporter that he just didn’t know what to do next. Describing the meeting as cordial but fruitless, he said, “Basically, I don’t even know if I should have gone down there. I don’t’ know how this thing is going to turn out. I don’t understand why they keep on trying to slam me with the title nightclub. I don’t know how you do that when you have a guy that serves food 73 hours a week.” 

O’Rourke was reacting to Mollis’s support of the position of his inspectors. Mollis insisted, “We just can’t allow the characteristics of a nightclub. I guess that’s the simple answer. Not only does the law not allow that, but the residents in this area, without question, do not favor this.” 

Then, apparently alluding to something O’Rourke said in the meeting, Mollis had some very telling words. “In my opinion, not only was [O’Rourke] not aware of certain laws, but he was misled by some Town Council members through the granting of the entertainment license, with the perception that he could do something that he is not allowed to do under the law.” 

The comments certainly suggested to me that Ricci and Zambarano made some kind of a deal with O'Rourke, what some referred to as a quid-pro-quo. Those comments also escalated into a very public argument that was played out in the newspaper. In an August 17th article, O’Rourke claimed that he was caught in the middle of a political feud between Mollis and Ricci because Ricci and Zambarano opposed the Mayor’s plans to relocate the senior citizen center at the “old Ronci lot” on Smith Street. Still trying to find a way to allow O’Rourke to open, Ricci fanned the flames. The Providence Journal reporter quoted Ricci:

 

‘“I don’t feel the place is a nightclub. The administration is enforcing the restrictions to the max. We are saying cut the guy a little slack.’ Ricci, a veteran councilman widely believed to have mayoral aspirations, grew uneasy talking about O’Rourke’s comments. ‘I don’t like to duck questions, but I hate right now to get into that,’ Ricci said. When pressed, he said, ‘Let me put it this way. I heard rumors on the street that the mayor was upset at me and that this [Picasso’s] is part of it. I hope that’s not the case…I haven’t talked to the Mayor about it. There are a lot of people who like to start rumors,’ he said. ‘There are people who don’t like the Mayor and there are people who don’t like me. I’m sure there are people who are trying to drive a wedge between myself and the Mayor and start some animosity between us. I wish it wouldn’t sink to that level. Once it does, no progress will be made.’” 

Zambarano naturally agreed with Ricci’s assessment. 

‘“I’ve heard the rumors too and I hope they aren’t true.’ He said that he has mostly supported the Mayor, but respectfully disagreed with him on the acquisition of additional land on Smith Street for the senior center, which will be built on a nearby parcel.’ With regard to Picasso’s, he said, ‘Personally, I don’t think the Mayor would take it that far.’” 

Then the Journal reporter unleashed this bombshell:

“Ricci has been working closely with O’Rourke and the new plaza owner to revitalize the area. He has had personal involvement in Picasso’s too. His father, Felix, longtime proprietor of Ricci’s Pizza & Restaurant on Woonasquatucket Avenue, sold his liquor license for $10,000 to O’Rourke late last year. Ricci did not participate in the council vote on the license transfer. He has, however, participated in subsequent deliberations on Picasso’s.” 

 

Wow! Many people in Town knew that Bob, not Felix Ricci, managed Ricci’s Italian Villa even though ownership of the restaurant remained in Felix’s name. Felix had long since retired from the business. Therefore, I thought, it is possible that Bob Ricci actually received the $10,000 for the liquor license. R.I. law does not allow the outright sale of a liquor license. It does allow the transfer of a liquor license as part of the sale of other assets such as equipment or a building. But to my knowledge, no other assets were transferred in the Ricci/O’Rourke liquor license transfer. 

Clearly something was amiss, and Ricci must have felt the need to put an end to the discussions fearing further pronouncements. He called the reporter back and told him that he phoned O’Rourke and the Mayor’s Chief of Staff and brokered a compromise that would allow O’Rourke to open. O’Rourke agreed to cover part of the dance floor with tables, remove the sound system and enclose the DJ booth converting it into a small office. He agreed to forgo the idea of a DJ and in return would be issued his occupancy permit by the Town allowing him to open for business on August 23rd. O’Rourke did not seem all that happy with the arrangement, but said he just wanted to open his doors. According to the Providence Journal: “He and Ricci said that Picasso’s will now have a chance to show town officials and residents that the business means to be a good neighbor. ‘He’s going to have to prove himself,’ said Ricci. Maybe then the town will give him a little latitude to do what he wants to do.’” 

Ricci’s statement seemed to lend credence to Mollis’s assertion that O’Rourke may have been misled throughout this process. Did Ricci and Zambarano intentionally imply that if O’Rourke purchased the license from Ricci, purchased the carpet from Zambarano and hired Zam’s Carpeting, the carpet sales and installation business owned by Zambarano, to install the carpeting that he would eventually be allowed to operate as a nightclub in a zone that prohibits such activity? Again I wondered if there was a quid-pro-quo involved in this deal, but had no proof other than informed speculation.

Before too long, things began to spin out of control once again. In the summer of 2003, inspectors were called back to the establishment responding to complaints of girls dancing in cages. O’Rourke, it seems, found a unique way of getting around the need for a dance floor. He featured caged girls dancing on tables. O’Rourke insisted the cages were for patrons, not for hired go-go girls. Following a surprise inspection by Councilman Ricci, O’Rourke told him, “These aren’t dancing cages. These are elevated dance platforms with safety bars.” Regardless of his objections, O’Rourke removed the cages to appease inspectors.

In October 2003, O’Rourke was in the news again. In an effort to expand business, the embattled proprietor changed the name of his pub to Bottoms Up. The Providence Journal described the new club as “A kind of male fantasy. Now waitresses from the Cadillac Lounge, a Providence strip club, take orders in swimsuits. ‘Lady bartenders will soon serve drinks in cheerleader uniforms; if the Patriots score, they do a cheer and wave pom-poms,’ O’Rourke said. ‘One girl can do five back flips in a row,’ he said.”  

A handwritten sign on the door proclaimed, “The Sports Swimsuit Edition Comes Alive at Bottoms Up Every Night.” Town officials were not amused, but O’Rourke scoffed at the charge that his latest venue might violate the town’s limitations on adult entertainment. “It’s not adult entertainment – oh my God, no,” he said. “There’s nothing illegal about it. Look, if a woman wants to wear a bathing suit and walk down Smith Street in December, there’s not a thing anyone can do about it.” 

I watched local television news accounts of O’Rourke’s latest antics and from the comfort and warmth of my living room I fumed. The news clip showed waitresses wearing thongs! 

The November 4th Council meeting resulted in several shouting matches between O’Rourke and various Council members. When I noted what I had seen on the news clip, O’Rourke asserted, “His waitresses might wear bikinis, but never thongs.” Exasperated, I shot back, “You are just a bold-faced liar. They’re G-strings! They’re in dental floss!” Reading from his new menu, I noted that there was neither pizza nor calzones being served, a violation of the entire premise of his original establishment. “No,” he said, “They changed it.” The other Council members noted that more than just the menu had changed. Ricci discussed the dancing cages, saying, “I put myself on the line for you Jack,” turning red as his voice rose to a crescendo. “I told you face to face that if you ever think you’re getting preferential treatment because you purchased my father’s license, you’re crazy,” Ricci continued. Zambarano chimed in, “If you thought I was going to overlook any problems you had with that place because I supplied a service that you paid a discount rate for, you were mistaken.” The similarity of their statements certainly sounded contrived and once again raised my suspicion.

The exchange didn’t quiet O’Rourke, rather it emboldened him. His counter charges prompted a review of the entire history surrounding his liquor license. Writing for the Providence Journal, Sarah I. Rosenbaum found that there was an unusual twist behind O’Rourke’s liquor license that closely involved Ricci. It seems that the license was originally owned by Bob’s father Felix, and was used at Ricci’s Italian Villa restaurant on Woonasquatucket Avenue. In the late 1990’s Felix sold the business to a new owner but held on to the real estate. The new owner defaulted on his loan, filed bankruptcy and disappeared. The business reverted back to Felix Ricci, but the liquor license remained in the name of the new owner. In a very unusual action, the Council declared the liquor license abandoned in 2000. Ricci’s lawyer, Robert Ciresi, asked the Council to abandon the license back to Felix Ricci. Ciresi told the Council “Felix Ricci planned to reopen his restaurant on the site.” Francesco “Frank” Martinelli, a local resident and political candidate against Ricci, testified that he witnessed all the restaurant equipment being taken out of the building by a company that resells used restaurant equipment. He further stated that he heard that Felix’s son John, Bob's brother, was going to open a church in the building. Ciresi countered, “There had been some talk of Ricci’s son, a pastor, opening a church there; but he would need special zoning, so that’s not an option at this point. We’re going to keep the place as a restaurant.” 

Because of the unique circumstances surrounding the license, the Council agreed that it should revert back to Felix Ricci, the original owner, since he still had plans to use it. Many of the Council members, however, were being made unwitting pawns to the deception. 

William Spivey, owner of another local restaurant, protested. He said that he had applied for that license twice and it should now be available to anyone applying for it. The Town Clerk, John Zambarano’s sister MaryAnn DeAngelus, informed the Council that Spivey hadn’t come forward to claim the license so his argument was dismissed and the license was awarded to Felix Ricci. (This is exactly the type of conflict of interest that I was referring to when I opposed the appointment of Zambarano’s sister as the Town Clerk.) One month later, Felix Ricci was before the Council again, this time to transfer his newly regained license to Jack O’Rourke for Picasso’s Pub, now Bottoms Up. His son had decided to locate his church in his restaurant building after all! 

I now realized that this was the plan from the start and Bob Ricci and Bob Ciresi intentionally misled the Council members, or at least those of us that weren't aware of the truth from the beginning. Clearly, Francesco Martinelli had been right all along. 

Spivey immediately appealed the Council decision to the state liquor administrator but his appeal was denied in November clearing the way for the license to revert back to Felix Ricci in December. Bob Ricci recused himself from the vote. 

 

According to the Journal:

“In January 2001, Robert Ricci appeared before the Zoning Board to argue for a variance allowing the building to be turned into a church. Pastor John Ricci now leads the Grace Christian Fellowship Church there. Robert Ricci is on the Board of Directors of the Church. Robert Ricci said that his father’s lawyer was truthful when he told the council that Felix Ricci planned to reopen his restaurant. Felix Ricci simply changed his mind later, Robert Ricci said, when O’Rourke asked to buy the liquor license.” 

 

Now, in November of 2003, O’Rourke disputed Ricci’s claim. He said he purchased the license from Bob Ricci, not from Felix Ricci. “Robert Ricci offered him the license for $10,000 plus $6,000 to pay off debts associated with the license,” O’Rourke said. He also claimed that, “Robert Ricci promised that the council would approve the license’s 2 a.m. closing time by saying, ‘No problem, I have the votes,” O’Rourke recalled. 

According to Rosenbaum, 

“Robert Ricci angrily denied that he had handled the deal with O’Rourke. O’Rourke dealt with his father, he said; the debts associated with the license were paid by Felix Ricci, not O’Rourke. ‘I didn’t promise Jack anything, Robert Ricci said. Jack has a way of embellishing all the stories.’”

 

O’Rourke also claimed:

“Ricci and fellow councilman John Zambarano approached him before he opened his restaurant to ask if he needed any carpets put in. The two are occasional business partners, and Zambarano often does the carpet work. O’Rourke said he took them up on the offer. Hey, look it, I’m in town, he said. I’d rather spend money with people in town, to show them, ‘Hey, you support me, I’ll support you.’” 

 

Both Ricci and Zambarano denied the allegations. 

O’Rourke took his claims to the FBI and to the local radio talk shows. It made quite a stir in town, but apparently never really amounted to anyone being charged with wrongdoing of any kind. One thing is very clear. Both Ricci and Zambarano cast several votes on the facility owned by O’Rourke but neither disclosed their business relationship with O’Rourke prior to casting those votes. While such disclosure is required under R.I. General Law, no one ever bothered to file a complaint with the R.I. Ethics Commission.

Now, facing another Council inspection of his premises, O’Rourke changed the establishment’s name and appearance a third time. Scores would be a sports bar featuring pool tables and various sporting events on several large-screen TV’s. The bars remained. Burt Tabor, a promoter O’Rourke hired from Las Vegas, met the Mayor and Council people at the site and explained the new venue. He offered each attendee a football autographed by Patriot’s quarterback Steve Grogan. Each declined the “offer” choosing instead to speak with O’Rourke’s fourth lawyer, Daniel McKiernan. 

Mollis acknowledged that the establishment was clearly a sports bar, another use prohibited in a Village Commercial zone. “Let’s call a spade a spade,” Ricci yelled. “This is not a restaurant by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a sports bar. When you tell me it’s a sports bar, then we can go forward…because you’re insulting my intelligence, and it’s been insulted enough.” McKiernan suggested that his client might apply for a variance out of an abundance of caution. I noted that such a variance might require that the Council reissue the liquor license. 

On November 24, 2003, the Council voted to strip O’Rourke of both his liquor and entertainment licenses. O’Rourke promptly appealed to the state liquor administrator who, on December 2nd, granted O’Rourke a stay of the Council’s ruling allowing him to remain open. Displaying a much more cooperative tone, McKiernan said:

 

“Between now and the hearing before the liquor board next month, Scores will do away with many features that originally roused the council’s ire including a swimsuit dress code for wait staff. We understand that there have been problems in the relationship with the council, and that some of those problems have been brought on by our own actions. We’re looking to mend that. The waitresses will no longer dress in scanty fashions and Scores will no longer feature loud music. We don’t even have a DJ on staff anymore.” 

 

In January 2004, O’Rourke again transformed his image. This time he converted the facility into a restaurant and café called Times Square. Alison Albanese, O’Rourke’s fifth lawyer, told the Council at its monthly meeting that O’Rourke is working with a more experienced restaurant developer to try to turn the eatery into something that meets local zoning requirements while also being successful financially. Zambarano still expressed concerns about returning the entertainment license and I expressed equal concerns about returning the liquor license. 

June 8, 2004 represented a set-back of sorts as the state liquor administrator returned O’Rourke’s liquor license writing that the Council erred in revoking it in November. “Jeffery J. Greer wrote: 

 

“…Proprietor Jack O’Rourke had misrepresented to the council what kind of business he intended to open on Smith Street. However, the council should have used ‘progressive discipline’ prior to revoking O’Rourke’s license. Because it failed to do so, O’Rourke deserved a ‘new lease on life,’ albeit with severe sanctions attached…‘Any further nightclub type of activity could lead to a permanent revocation of the liquor license.”  

 

O’Rourke was clearly satisfied with the ruling and said that he again planned to change the name of his facility. “Barrel’s…will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He will have a ‘full blown’ menu with appetizers, sandwiches, entrees, daily specials and fish and chips seven days a week. We’re going to be fine, he said. I got 22 years left on a 25 year lease.” 

A skeptical Council voted on July 7, 2004 to return the liquor license in compliance with the mandate of the Department of Business Regulation thus allowing O’Rourke to reopen by the following Saturday. The Council’s skepticism was justified. A short twelve months later, in July 2005, O’Rourke was seeking an entertainment license to bring a circus act to Barrel’s. “I don’t want to go out of business,” he told John Zambarano at the meeting. “Bringing in a circus act with jugglers, high-wire walkers and belly dancers” would give him a chance. The application also requested permission to have music, bands and karaoke at the restaurant and to sell pizza until 3 a.m. Councilmen Sisto, Giusti, Burchfield and Zambarano voted to deny his request. Ricci abstained and I had to leave the meeting early telling the reporter that I would have voted against granting the license had I been able to remain. In apparent retaliation for the denial, O’Rourke began to run ads calling Barrel’s a “hot strip joint,” referring to hot pizza strips but clearly intending to confuse potential customers with the clever double entendre. He attempted to attract customers by hosting adult-film stars that, although fully clothed, offered to take Polaroid pictures with patrons and then autograph them. 

By November 2005, Mollis announced that his police department had conducted a 5-week undercover investigation into the club. The Council was told that undercover police had visited the establishment on two occasions and found masseuses and the silhouette of a naked woman projected on a video screen. Barrel’s was also selling food that it took in from other restaurants and had closed its own kitchen, a violation of the liquor license. O’Rourke asserted in response that employees were merely offering “shoulder rubs” to customers sitting at the bar. “For $1 a minute, the employees simply rub a customer’s neck, temple, forehead, shoulder and the top part of his or her arms.” O’Rourke said.

He blamed the lack of parking for his inability to operate successfully by day forcing him to resort to inventive nighttime activities at his establishment. (Ironically, the lack of parking brings attention to another questionable issue that involved Bob Ricci. When Joseph Romano purchased the Fruit Hill Plaza he negotiated a series of tax abatements with Ricci who proposed them to the administration. In exchange, Romano promised to install curbs and old-style street lamps on brick sidewalks. He also promised to landscape 5% of his parking lot. Although none of those improvements materialized, Romano did receive the tax incentives. A couple of times I discussed raising the issue of reversing the tax incentives if Romano didn’t comply with the conditions. Each time I did so Ricci, who controlled the necessary Council votes, refused to discuss the issue formally.)

The police report further stated that the waitresses giving messages might not be properly licensed. The investigation included photographs, two hours of video and recordings made during the two visits to the establishment. 

On November 22nd the Council, after hearing an hour of testimony, voted 5-1 to revoke O’Rourke’s liquor license. Councilman Ray Douglas dissented opting instead for a 30-day revocation. 

Eight days later O’Rourke announced that he had had enough. He was closing his doors for good. He asked if he could have 30 days to find a buyer for his license. Mollis indicated that he believed O’Rourke lost the right to sell the license when it was revoked and his assertion was not challenged.

The O’Rourke saga was finally over. It lasted four years and three months. Over that time O’Rourke changed the name of the establishment five times. He was represented by three different attorneys and the town’s investigation into his activities involved eight town departments and one federal agency. During those years I looked closely at the dealings of Ricci and Zambarano and started to view them in a very different light. O’Rourke had charged that Ricci and Zambarano extorted him. Ricci, he said, originally asked for $10,000 for the license but then demanded another $5,000, which O’Rourke said he delivered to Ricci in a brown paper bag. Further, he said, the two councilmen forced him to hire Zambarano’s carpet installation company. While Zambarano claims to have provided the lowest price, O’Rourke said he never obtained any other prices and paid Zambarano far more than the job was worth. In return, he was promised that he would be allowed to operate the type of facility he wanted as long as he did as they asked and followed their advice. 

It is unclear whether the FBI ever investigated O’Rourke’s allegations, but it is certain that there were no associated repercussions for Ricci or Zambarano. Local radio talk show host, Dan Yorke, dubbed Ricci “Bobbie brown bags,” a name that developed legs throughout the town. In the end though, Ricci and Zambarano succeeded in making O’Rourke look foolish even if there were some truth to his charges.

Finally, an End to 2:00 A.M. Liquor Licenses

 

North Providence has had a long history of allowing establishments holding liquor licenses to remain open on Friday and Saturday nights until 2:00 A.M. According to Bob Ciresi, an attorney for the North Providence Restaurant Association, the ordinance has been in effect since 1978, a time when he served as Town Solicitor. The ordinance may have been around for a long time, but so too have the problems that such an ordinance creates, I contended. 

I first proposed a rollback of the 2:00 closing times early in 2003 after a series of incidents at local clubs. There are two problems with allowing late-night closings of liquor establishments in North Providence, I argued. First, municipalities that require their clubs to close at 1:00 surround the Town. That means that bar patrons from Lincoln, Smithfield, Johnston and Pawtucket all flock to North Providence to continue their late night/early morning drinking. The second issue is the unique configuration of the Town that has businesses nestled up against, or sometimes directly in the middle of, residential zones. 

Councilman Burchfield, who over the years developed a close political relationship with Ricci and Zambarano, worked for years in his father’s restaurant business. He understood issues facing those trying to eke out a living in the trade and sympathized with their plight, apparently more so than he empathized with the plight of residents dealing with the noise and quality-of-life issues. So when I proposed the elimination of the 2:00 closings, the motion received no second. 

By late spring, several incidents at local bars started to change the Council’s thinking on the issue. There had been a long-standing dispute with neighbors of Jam-in Bar and Grille, Bailey’s Pub, Gabby’s Bar, Ruffstone Tavern, and other establishments. In the spring of 2003, noise and disorderly issues regarding the Manhattan Café allegedly owned by Raymond Douglas, and the Ruffstone Tavern had come to a head. No solution that the Council attempted provided the overdue relief to neighboring residents. Now, frustrated with the constant calls asking them to respond to noise and disorderly complaints at the bars, the police department was asking for help from the council. 

That apparently got the attention of Ricci, Zambarano and Sisto. In July 2003 the Council advertised for a public hearing on two ordinances to be heard in August. The first eliminated 2:00 closing times in North Providence. The second rolled back the hours of entertainment licenses from 1:00 A.M. to midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. 

Restaurant and bar owners responded to the discussions by forming the North Providence Restaurant Association and hiring Bob Ciresi to fight for their interests. The Council heard from some neighbors and the police, but about 200 restaurant owners and their patrons packed the Council chambers to protest the ordinances. To the applause of most in the chamber Ciresi proclaimed, “I don’t think the council’s out to kill all these businesses, but if these ordinances are passed, that’s what’s going to happen.” Ricci stood firm however saying he believed the ordinances were necessary. Sarah Rosenbaum quoted Ricci in the Providence Journal:

 

“It’s a quality of life issue and a safety issue,” he explained after the meeting. The 2:00 A.M. closings drew people from surrounding towns to North Providence to get drunk and make trouble, he said. ‘There have been numerous complaints; there have been actual riots,’ Ricci said. ‘…Do we want to make North Providence a dumping ground?’”

 

Apparently Ricci had an epiphany I thought! Suddenly 2:00 closing times were a major disruption to the quality of life in North Providence. I shook my head and wondered why Ricci and the other Council members didn’t share those exact concerns when I raised them several years ago!

Joe Burchfield cast the only dissenting vote on the Council saying that passage of the ordinances would hurt a lot of businesses. He told the reporter that he believed passage would lead to many boarded up businesses within six months. 

The Association members cried foul and took to the airwaves. Dan Yorke, a conservative talk-show host for local AM radio station 6:30 WPRO, actually set up a remote broadcast from Stuffies Bar & Grille on Mineral Spring Avenue. Stuffies management had been pretty vocal in their opposition to the Council’s action. Bob Ricci and I participated in the show and remained for about 2 hours answering questions and taking calls regarding the Council’s decision. I don’t think we changed any minds, but we were commended for having the courage to confront the issue and the critics head on. An interesting side note to the 2:00 closing issue occurred several months later when I was dining at Stuffies. The manager approached me and said that their business had in fact not suffered at all and the staff certainly appreciated that they no longer had to work the extra early morning hours. 

As is often the case with decisions of this type there was an unanticipated consequence to the elimination of the 2:00 closings. The ordinance that passed in August was to take effect on the first day of December. As a result, many of the establishments that booked holiday parties for Christmas and New Year’s Eve months before the vote would be in default of their contracts. The Restaurant Association approached the Council in December and asked for a stay on the implementation of the ordinance. In reply, the Council voted 4-3 to grant a five-day exception to the terms of the ordinance, one for each Saturday night in December, plus Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve of that year. On those days the establishments were allowed to remain open until 2:00.

The Providence Journal ran a follow-up story on January 15, 2004 in which the reporter interviewed several bar owners and police officers. Each agreed that out-of-town patrons who used to drink in North Providence “have been avoiding the Town ever since the closing time roll-back took effect.” Police Chief Ernie Spaziano said, “…and with them also leave their attendant problems.” He called the change good adding, “The quality-of-life in town seems to be greatly improved. It’s the residents of town who are benefiting from the 1 a.m. closings.” His nightshift officers agreed, “The town was transformed and was no longer plagued by late-night noise, fighting, litter, and drunk driving.” The bar owners, however, saw “money, not social ills, leaving with the drinkers.” They tried to obtain a court injunction against the town but failed. 

Looking back many years later, no one seemed to be hurt financially by the rollback. Some bars and restaurants closed down but others opened in their place. For each liquor license seller, there was a liquor license buyer. No liquor licenses were returned to the town Council. But the quality-of-life sure did improve for those many neighbors saddled with the nuisance that comes from living next to a liquor establishment. It is unfortunate that it took Ricci and the others so many years to recognize and address the negative impact that the 2:00 closing time had on the quality-of-life for so many residents. Their refusal to support my efforts back on November 8, 2000 caused needless harm to so many good people - all apparently because Ricci didn't want me to be credited with the reform for fear that I might one day oppose him in a run for higher office. 

 

My Frustration Mounts

In 2004 the Town was facing a mounting debt, not from the municipal side of government that the Council and mayor controlled, but rather from the school department that falls under the auspices of the elected School Committee that is granted complete autonomy by the Town charter. While the Council has no authority to alter individual line items within the school departments proposed budget, it does have the ability to alter the bottom line. Changing the proposed bottom line however, never provided a guarantee that the specific items the Council intended to change would actually be addressed by the school committee. For example, if the Council recognized that a $10,000 expense to hire a new assistant softball coach wasn’t necessary, it could reduce the school committee’s budget by $10,000. The school committee was then free to maintain the position of assistant softball coach and eliminate $10,000 from the purchase of new school books. I believed that since the Department was autonomous in terms of its decision making, it should be fully accountable for its decisions. 

In March I introduced a series of reform proposals to address the school department issues in an effort to help improve the overall economic climate of North Providence. For the most part the proposals were simple. However one of the initiatives was intended to be controversial so as to spark a discussion at the state level that might lead to some reform or at least the passage of a new, overdue school funding formula in the face of a void left by an expired policy. 

First, I proposed passage of a resolution requiring that the school department issue its own tax bills. I reasoned that since the Council had no real authority to oversee their expenditures or address budget line items, forcing the school department to raise its own money might hold them more accountable to the people that elect them. 

The second proposal was to bring litigation against the state to require the funding of 60% of municipal government’s education expenses as initially proposed by the legislature. 

Additionally, I proposed passage of a resolution asking our local legislators to introduce legislation prohibiting the passage of any laws that included unfunded mandates. 

Finally, in an effort to renew discussion of some of the initiatives I explored while chairing the Finance Committee, I proposed the formation of a municipal committee to research alternatives to property taxes, such as utility taxes, a renters’ tax, a pay-as-you-throw waste disposal program, etc. 

In most communities these proposals would be subjected to a simple up or down vote. They were, after all, only proposals as I did not draft an ordinance. In North Providence they were referred to the Ordinance Committee. As had been my historical experience with the Ordinance Committee, my new proposals would sit in this big black government hole languishing for months without action. By July, I had waited long enough. I issued a press release noting my displeasure and disappointment with the delay and accusing the others on the Council of stonewalling the proposals for political reasons and in the process, denying the residents we serve an opportunity to explore solutions to our budget problems.

Councilman Simone responded that all of the proposed changes required an amendment to the town’s legislative charter. In my opinion they did not! With the exception of the suggested litigation against the state, the proposals included the same type of resolution that the Council routinely passed each month with very little discussion. Simone added that there was no hurry to act on the proposals because the legislature had adjourned for the year. Instead, he said, the Ordinance Committee voted to form another committee to study the suggestions for six more months. His response added to my infuriation and I suggested that there was a bias against me by the “Ricci faction” on the Council. “Had they acted on the proposals in March, the legislature would have had over 3 months to address the issues that required their attention,” I said. 

Councilman Ricci, in response, called the proposals impractical. He said he was irked by the suggestion that there was politics at play. “It’s all ridiculous,” Ricci told the Journal reporter. “All of Caranci’s suggestions, including a move to force the state to pay its fair share of the town’s education bill, have been considered before by city and town councils across the state. All of them would require General Assembly action to become reality.” Zambarano, who by now was simply an alternate mouthpiece for Ricci, agreed. “They’re all charter changes which have to go down to the State House, which have to be debated, which have to be passed by the Senate and the House,”

Both said I “was out of line.” Ricci accused me of being political saying that if I was “so concerned about doing something to help the Town of North Providence, then when we passed the resolution [to allow the council to ratify union contracts] he would have gotten on the phone to his good, close, dear friend [Rep.] Arthur Corvese, who’s like a brother to him, and lobbied him to introduce the bill.” “Where was Caranci?” echoed Zambarano. 

All the Council critics failed to understand that I wanted legislative debate on these issues which is why I proposed them during the legislative session. I was, in fact, requesting that the resolutions be sent to the general assembly for approval! 

To this day, the newly formed “committee” that was set up to address the proposals never met and my proposals, in violation of the town charter provision that requires Committee action within 30 days of the Committee’s receipt of a proposal, were never released from the Ordinance Committee.

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Paul F. Caranci is a historian and serves on the board of directors for the RI Heritage Hall of Fame. He is a cofounder of, and consultant to The Municipal Heritage Group and the author of five published books including two produced by The History Press. North Providence: A History & The People Who Shaped It (2012) and The Hanging & Redemption of John Gordon: The True Story of Rhode Island’s Last Execution (2013) that was selected by The Providence Journal as one of the top five non-fiction books of 2013. Paul served for eight years as Rhode Island’s Deputy Secretary of State and for almost seventeen years as a councilman in his hometown of North Providence. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Margie. They have two adult children, Heather and Matthew, and four grandsons, Matthew Jr., Jacob, Vincent and Casey.

 

Related Slideshow: Rhode Island’s History of Political Corruption

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Buddy Cianci

Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci resigned as Providence Mayor in 1984 after pleading nolo contendere to charges of assaulting a Bristol man with a lit cigarette, ashtray, and fireplace log. Cianci believed the man to be involved in an affair with his wife. 

Cianci did not serve time in prison, but received a 5-year suspended sentence. He was replaced by Joseph R. Paolino, Jr. in a special election. 

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Joseph Bevilacqua

Joseph Bevilacqua was RI Speaker of the House from 1969 to 1975, and was appointed as Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court in 1976.  It was alleged that Bevilacqua had connections to organized crime throughout his political career.  

According to a 1989 article that appeared in The New York Times at the time of his death:

The series of events that finally brought Mr. Bevilacqua down began at the end of 1984... stating that reporters and state police officers had observed Mr. Bevilacqua repeatedly visiting the homes of underworld figures.

The state police alleged that Mr. Bevilacqua had also visited a Smithfield motel, owned by men linked to gambling and drugs...

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Thomas Fay

Thomas Fay, the successor to Bevilacqua as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, resigned in 1993, and was later found guilty on three misdemeanor counts of directing arbitration work to a partner in his real estate firm, Lincoln Center Properties.  

Fay was also alleged to use court employees, offices, and other resources for the purposes of the real estate firm.  Fay, along with court administrator and former Speaker of the House, Matthew "Mattie" Smith were alleged to have used court secretaries to conduct business for Lincoln, for which Fay and Smith were business partners. 

Fay was fined $3,000 and placed on one year probation. He could have been sentenced for up to three years in prison. 

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Brian J. Sarault

Former Pawtucket Mayor Brian J. Sarault was sentenced in 1992 to more than 5 years in prison, after pleading guilty to a charge of racketeering.  

Sarault was arrested by state police and FBI agents at Pawtucket City Hall in 1991, who alleged that the mayor had attempted to extort $3,000 from former RI State Rep. Robert Weygand as a kickback from awarding city contracts.

Weygand, after alerting federal authorities to the extortion attempt, wore a concealed recording device to a meeting where he delivered $1,750 to Sarault.

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Edward DiPrete

Edward DiPrete became the first Rhode Island Governor to be serve time in prison after pleading guilty in 1998 to multiple charges of corruption.

He admitted to accepting bribes and extorting money from contractors, and accepted a plea bargain which included a one-year prison sentence.

DiPrete served as Governor from 1985-1991, losing his 1990 re-election campaign to Bruce Sundlun.

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Plunder Dome

Cianci was forced to resign from the Mayor’s office a second time in 2002 after being convicted on one several charges levied against him in the scandal popularly known as “Operation Plunder Dome.” 

The one guilty charge—racketeering conspiracy--led to a five-year sentence in federal prison. Cianci was acquitted on all other charges, which included bribery, extortion, and mail fraud.

While it was alleged that City Hall had been soliciting bribes since Cianci’s 1991 return to office, much of the case revolved around a video showing a Cianci aide, Frank Corrente, accepting a $1,000 bribe from businessman Antonio Freitas. Freitas had also recorded more than 100 conversations with city officials.

Operation Plunder Dome began in 1998, and became public when the FBI executed a search warrant of City Hall in April 1999. 

Cianci Aide Frank Corrente, Tax Board Chairman Joseph Pannone, Tax Board Vice Chairman David C. Ead, Deputy tax assessor Rosemary Glancy were among the nine individuals convicted in the scandal. 

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N. Providence Councilmen

Three North Providence City Councilmen were convicted in 2011 on charges relating to a scheme to extort bribes in exchange for favorable council votes. In all, the councilmen sought more than $100,000 in bribes.

Councilmen Raimond A. Zambarano, Joseph Burchfield, and Raymond L. Douglas III were sentenced to prison terms of 71 months, 64 months, and 78 months, respectively. 

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Charles Moreau

Central Falls Mayor Charles Moreau resigned in 2012 before pleading guilty to federal corruption charges. 

Moreau admitted that he had give contractor Michael Bouthillette a no-bid contract to board up vacant homes in exchange for having a boiler installed in his home. 

He was freed from prison in February 2014, less than one year into a 24 month prison term, after his original sentence was vacated in exchange for a guilty plea on a bribery charge.  He was credited with tim served, placed on three years probation, and given 300 hours of community service.

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Joe Almeida

State Representative Joseph S. Almeida was arrested and charged on February 10, 2015 for allegedly misappropriating $6,122.03 in campaign contributions for his personal use. Following his arrest, he resigned his position as House Democratic Whip, but remains a member of the Rhode Island General Assembly.

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Gordon Fox

The Rhode Island State Police and FBI raided and sealed off the State House office of Speaker of the House Gordon Fox on March 21--marking the first time an office in the building has ever been raided. 

Fox pled guilty to 3 criminal counts on March 3, 2015 - accepting a bribe, wire fraud, and filing a false tax return. The plea deal reached with the US Attorney's office calls for 3 years in federal prison, but Fox will be officially sentenced on June 11.

 
 

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