EXCLUSIVE: North Providence Corruption Probe - New Allegations

Thursday, March 24, 2011

 

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In an exclusive interview with GoLocalProv, the owner of a former North Providence sports bar leveled new accusations against two former councilmen who he says bullied and intimidated him into hiring their carpeting company.

The two men—John A. Zambarano and Robert A. Ricci—were later indicted for insurance fraud. Zambarano also was charged in a separate bribery and extortion scheme along with two other councilmen. But the incident involving Jack O’Rourke and his business, Picasso’s Pizza and Pub, was not covered by the indictments handed down against Zambarano and Ricci.

‘An intimidation factor’

Before Picasso’s opened for business in August 2001, Ricci strolled into O'Rourke's bar one day with an offer.

“He says, ‘Myself and John Zambarano have a rug company called Zam’s Carpeting … and we’d like to carpet your place,” O’Rourke recalled. “I said, ‘No problem Bobby, I always try when I open a place … to keep my business in town.’”

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But first, O’Rourke said he would need to go out to bid for the work.

Ricci—who also had sold him his liquor license—pushed back. “He said, ‘Well it would be good because I’m the councilman at large … and John Zambarano is your councilman in your district.”

Looking back, O’Rourke thinks that Ricci was trying to “strong-arm” him into the deal. “Make no mistake about it, there was an intimidation factor there,” he said.

Several bids came in—all within a few hundred dollars of each other, so O’Rourke went with the obvious choice: Zam’s Carpeting. Bank records obtained by GoLocalProv indicate that O’Rourke made out three separate checks to Zam’s Carpeting, Inc.—between April 26 and July 19 of 2001. In all, his new carpets cost him a total of $3,577.26. (The checks are pictured at bottom.)

State records confirm that John A. Zambarano is the President of the company, which was incorporated in 1991 and had its certificate revoked in 2010 for failure to file an annual report. None of the available online records list Ricci as having any official affiliation with the business.

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(Both Zambarano and Ricci declined to comment for this report.)

‘Anytime I want, I can pull your licenses’

It turns out O’Rourke was quite happy with their carpeting job. So happy, in fact, that he sung their praises to a Providence Journal reporter who was writing a feature story about his bar.

O’Rourke thought he was doing them a favor.

But instead of a thank you, he received threats after the article came out. (The article no longer appears in the online public archives for Journal.)

Just days after the article was published—in the spring of 2003—O’Rourke said his business partner, John Davone, ran into Zambarano at the Citizens Bank branch on Smith Street in North Providence. Zambarano confronted him over the article. “He said, ‘Could you tell Jack with his big mouth talking about Zam’s Carpeting that he’s going to have more problems than you can believe,’” O’Rourke said.

“That’s when it all started,” he added.

A few months later, O’Rourke had his own run-in with Ricci in the parking lot near his bar.

Ricci asked O’Rourke if he still owned and operated the bar. O’Rourke said that he did.

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“He said, ‘Don’t forget one thing—I control it. Anytime I want, I can pull your licenses.’”

Councilmen accused O’Rourke of violations

What followed was a years-long battle with the town over whether his bar would be able to stay open. On November 24, 2003, the council pulled his liquor, entertainment, and amusement licenses, according to the meeting minutes. The vote was unanimous and the minutes indicate that both Ricci—then the council president—and Zambarano were present and voted.

The minutes say the council raised concerns over zoning, safety, and compliance with the conditions of his licenses.

After that November meeting, the town took the issue to the Department of Business Regulation—which restored his liquor license but ordered him to scratch off decorative etchings on his windows, take down most of the TV sets in the bar, and eradicate any indication that Picasso’s Pizza and Pub was a sports bar—which the town council claimed was not allowed by zoning.

The fight lingered on, snowballing into a battle between his business and the town that was well publicized in the media. At the time, O’Rourke (pictured above right) says that he did not reveal what he believes was the real reason behind it all—the flap over the carpeting business.

The council again revoked away his license on November 22, 2005, according to the meeting minutes. The council said that there had been a “naked female silhouette dancer behind an eight-foot screen, exceptionally loud music, improper advertising” and a “failure to provide adequate security.”

This time, Ricci recused himself from voting, but Zambarano—who was the official owner of the carpeting business—voted to revoke the license.

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  O’Rourke says the council was just dredging up whatever it could find against him. He says his bar had a good reputation—pointing to its recognition on citysearch.com as one of the Best Sports Bars in the area in 2004.

‘They took my retirement … they took my life away’

The vote was the final nail in the coffin for the business, which went into receivership and was auctioned off in 2006, according to O’Rourke. All told, he said he and his business partner lost $700,000 battling the town.

“They took my retirement. They took my life away,” O’Rourke said.

“What happened to Jack in North Providence brings to life that perception of corruption that so many people have about this state and what it can be like for an honest guy to try to make a living,” said Nick Hemond, a political communications consultant who is a friend of O’Rourke’s. “It makes me sick what happened to him because Jack really is one of the good guys and he lost everything he had fighting for his business.”

In the midst of his fight with the town, O’Rourke had reached out to his cousin, a former prosecutor for the state Attorney General. Soon, FBI agents showed up at his door.

“They said, ‘We understand you have a problem,’” O’Rourke said.

“I have a big problem,” O’Rourke replied. He said he spent two years working with the FBI on their investigation.

‘Sometimes in Rhode Island the good guy wins’

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In May 2010, Zambarano—along with councilmen Joseph S. Burchfield, and Raymond L. Douglas III—were arrested by the FBI and charged with accepting a $25,000 bribe in exchange for voting for a zoning change for a supermarket (the three councilmen are pictured together above left). Three months later, the three men were also charged with three other alleged extortion and bribery schemes. Then, last November, Zambarano and Ricci were among four people indicted for insurance fraud.

None of the alleged actions against O'Rourke were covered in the indictments.

But O’Rourke says his cooperation helped move the investigation along. “I think I had a lot to do with getting it rolling in North Providence,” he said.

GoLocalProv contacted both the FBI’s Boston office and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Rhode Island for comment. Spokesmen for both offices said they could neither confirm nor deny that they had been working with O’Rourke.

Earlier this year, Zambarano, Burchfield, and Douglas pled guilty to the bribery and extortion charges. The insurance fraud case is still pending.

Even though there have been no charges filed in response to his allegations, O’Rourke feels that justice has been served. “If I had a choice of winning Powerball on a Saturday or seeing these guys go to jail, I’ll take seeing these guys go to jail,” he said. “That’s how important getting these guys was to me.”

“Sometimes in Rhode Island the good guy wins,” he added.

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