Wired: 2002 to 2008 Part 2, A Book by Paul Caranci
Monday, May 15, 2017
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.
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Simone Calls it a Career and Douglas Upsets Cook
2004 also happened to be an election year and Peter Simone stunned local political observers with the announcement that he would not seek re-election to the Council choosing instead to retire with 22 years of service. Almost immediately a long line of potential candidates started to form and many declared their intentions. After the return of nomination papers, however, only 3 candidates remained.
Anthony Robert Cerilli had the backing of only two elected officials, me and Doc Corvese. Mansuet Giusti, a retired state worker who spent many years coaching the local North Providence Jets football team, had the support of all the other elected officials in town, and Michael Rollins, the perennial candidate, this time running as an Independent had the support of virtually no one in elective office.
The race was hard fought and morphed into a political battle between Bob Ricci and me. To underscore that rivalry and to take advantage of the support that many residents showed for the positions I had taken, Bob Cerilli and I printed lawn signs that read, CARANCI NEEDS CERILLI. The oddity of those signs served the required purpose and generated a significant amount of press in a race that otherwise may have been off the radar. The strategy appeared to work and by 6:00 on primary election night it seemed that Cerilli would be victorious.
That, however, is exactly when the Mollis election machine kicked into high gear. Few people had a better-organized election-day campaign strategy than Ralph Mollis. After spending the majority of the day at the polls, shaking hands, holding signs and distributing Giusti literature, the key politicians supporting Giusti were recalled to headquarters at about 6:00 p.m. At that time they began calling their previously identified supporters who, based on the results of the “hourly bingo sheets” that were collected from the various polls throughout the course of the day, had not yet voted.
At about 6:30, while greeting voters for Cerilli at my home polling precinct, I received a call from the nervous candidate. He said that several carloads of people just pulled up to his home polling precinct, rushed into the polling place, ran back out after voting and pulled away. We knew then that those had to be voters called by the Mollis campaign and, more than likely, we were beaten!
Cerilli and I had neither the financial resources nor the required volunteer force to compete with that type of election-day machine. Cerilli fell about 130 votes short, enough to make the mail ballots irrelevant. Cerilli’s loss also evaporated any hopes I had of gaining a supporter on the Council bench. Without someone who shared my beliefs, I would be forced to endure at least another two years of 6-1 votes.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in that election came in the contest for the District 3 Council seat. There, 10-year incumbent Eileen Cook faced bar owner and political novice Raymond Douglas III. Douglas allegedly owned the Manhattan Café in North Providence. Like Burchfield he had graduated from LaSalle Academy. Unlike Burchfield, Douglas had never graduated from college.
As the proprietor of the Manhatten Café, he was very often called before the Council to defend his establishment against noise complaints filed by the neighbors. He and I had several disagreements and less-than-cordial verbal exchanges when, during testimony before the Council, I found him to be inconsistent while defending his club. The Providence Journal described him as having a “fiery temperament” and of being “sharp-tongued.” I wasn’t as subtle. I accused him of being a liar.
Essentially, what concerned me most about his candidacy is that if elected, he would team up with Ricci, Zambarano and Burchfield to overturn the ban on 2:00 closings for liquor establishments, something he opposed as a member of the North Providence Restaurant Association. When the results were tallied, Douglas upset Cook by 9 votes and would advance to face Independent candidate William “Billy” Goodman in the November election.
In an odd political alliance, Eileen Cook, Bob Ricci, John Zambarano and I joined forces to support and organize the campaign of Billy Goodman. While the others justified their support of Goodman as a simple vote for the better candidate, I didn’t couch my antipathy for Douglas. I said that in addition to Goodman being a better candidate, Douglas “had been less than forthcoming” in his many appearances before the council. “If that’s how he intends to represent the people, by denying culpability and pointing fingers at others, then I don’t think he’s going to make a good representative of the people.”
Throughout the primary campaign, Douglas “presented himself as the antidote to a council stocked with longtime incumbents practicing what he called ‘backdoor politics.’ As a novice candidate, he said, he can be an independent voice. ‘I’m not going to be anybody’s guy on the council,’ he said, ‘I’m going to be Ray Douglas for the people.’” Despite his claim, time would prove that he was “Ray Douglas for Ray Douglas!”
Very shortly after the primary, Douglas, who had been remarried on the Saturday before the election, left Rhode Island for his delayed honeymoon. Upon his return, he began his campaign to win the Council seat. He and Giusti each won the November races handily. My fear of having no supporters on the new Council was realized. I wearily looked forward to a very long two years of struggle to accomplish anything good and more importantly, to prevent anything bad from taking place.
The Manhatten Cafe Gets another Hearing
The Council met in special session on November 19th to discuss the lingering issue of taking action against the entertainment license of the Manhattan Café, the bar owned by Councilman-Elect, Raymond Douglas III. It became apparent almost immediately that the Ricci crew was going to marry Douglas politically as a means of trying to ensure Douglas’s support of their Council positions.
While each had spoken about their desire to revoke the entertainment license so as to curtail the noise that resulted in constant complaints from the neighbors, Ricci announced in executive session that he and Douglas reached a compromise that would allow Douglas to hold on to the license. In essence, Douglas agreed to have the bands or DJs turn their amplifiers away from the door and agreed to turn down the volume.
Both proposals amounted to meaningless gestures that would provide no relief to the neighbors. Ricci moved to seal the record of the executive session thereby assuring that the public would never know what took place during that discussion. More probable, he just didn’t want the public to know of the “deal” that would essentially ignore the wishes of the neighbors in an effort to garner the support of a new political ally. I objected to the closed-door session saying, “In light of the fact that the person we’re discussing is a recently elected town official, going into executive session might present the ‘appearance of impropriety.’” Council President Burchfield disagreed. He felt that this sort of thing should be discussed behind closed doors free of emotional interference of the public. Burchfield said he, “believed Douglas was almost certain to win his appeal which was the reason that the council had called a meeting to seek a compromise in the first place.”
Once back in open session Ricci charmed the small crowd of objectors by telling them exactly what they wanted to hear. “We discussed issues…raised by neighbors,” Ricci said. “We discussed issues of noise. We discussed issues of parking. We all have your best interests at heart. We’re trying to protect the neighborhood.” As Ricci promised me they would, the neighbors bought into his bullshit.
For the most part, 2005 and 2006 were years of exile. With Eileen Cook's loss, I lost the last person to occasionally support my initiatives. Burchfield had long since abandoned support of my proposals and was by this time solidly behind Ricci and Zambarano. Coupled with Bob Cerilli’s loss to Giusti, the Ricci faction was solidly in control. I knew I had to just bide my time and wait until the next election.
By mid-2006 Ralph Mollis made a decision to run for Secretary of State ending months of speculation that he might seek the office of General Treasurer or Lt. Governor. The idea of losing someone I considered to be a fair, open-minded public servant dedicated to the interests of the town caused me to flirt with the idea calling it a career and not seeking re-election. When I floated the idea to some friends at a meeting of the Democrat Town Committee a few weeks later the mere suggestion of an open seat apparently sent ripples through the committee like a boulder breaking through the glasslike surface of a pond. Before long, Mayor Mollis and John Fleming asked me to reconsider. “I’ve already been asked by seven loyal supporters to endorse them for the district one council seat. I can support only one and will have 6 good families upset with me,” Mollis said. “The last thing I need while seeking a state office is to tear apart my base.” Negatively impacting Ralph’s chances at statewide office was not on my radar. Though we had some political and/or philosophical differences over the years, I believed him to be both honest and hardworking. I agreed to run for re-election in order to spare him the anguish that my retirement from public office may have caused. I also agreed, after some coaxing, to help manage his campaign for Secretary of State.
We both won fairly easy primary victories although Ralph emerged a little bloodied from a hard fought battle with mudslinger Guillaume DeRamel whose attacks were both personal and malicious. Mollis's election in November against Republican Sue Stenhouse was cordial and the margin of victory comfortable. Following his election, Mollis offered me a position as one of his Deputy Secretaries of State. After much consternation, family discussion and strong urging from Margie, I decided to accept the position and take a leave of absence from the fairly successful real estate business I had built four years earlier.
Ralph’s departure as mayor left an opening that required a special election. Council President John Sisto assumed the role of acting mayor during the interim. After resigning his District 2 Council seat, he announced his intention to seek the office for the remaining two years of the Mollis term thereby creating a showdown with old nemesis and former Councilman Charles A. Lombardi.
In a campaign wrought with political mistakes, Sisto was defeated by just over 300 votes. I thought my last two years on the Council were bad, but with Lombardi about to take the reigns as mayor, my political troubles were just beginning. In the meantime, John Fleming decided to run in the special election for the District 2 Council seat vacated by Sisto. At least in Fleming I would have an ally on the Council again.
A Dictator Comes to Town Hall
At just about 5’4” tall, Lombardi appeared to some to be an egotistical, maniacal, dictatorial leader. Lombardi has been known to compensate for his lack of physical stature by lewdly barking orders and sometimes treating people in an abusive manner. Lombardi is a dichotomy within himself. There are essentially two different people within his persona. The first is Charlie the friend, a fun-loving, funny, self-assured man willing to lend a hand to a friend in need. Then there is the alter-Charlie, the one motivated by vengeance toward his enemies. The Charlie you might experience on any given day is determined by whether you are a friend or foe. And, as I had witnessed during the years that I aligned with him politically, he often will use whatever means possible to destroy his enemies and reward his friends. He portrays himself as a successful businessman and did in fact operate a very successful dry-cleaning company, though the Luxury Cleaners he operated was built by his parents whose years of labor and intense work ethic were largely responsible for the success.
Soon after his election Lombardi began to flaunt his power. Some Council members contended that he abused his power the very day he took office in April 2007. He began challenging the Council almost immediately by both usurping the Council’s authority and violating the town charter and R.I. General Law. A contentious relationship ensued between the executive and legislative branches of local government the likes of which had not been witnessed in the town at any time during my tenure in government.
While there were many areas of disagreement between Lombardi and the Town Council members, a few examples are summarized on the following pages. Some of these items are significant in their scope while others may seem trivial in nature demonstrating a pattern of indifference to the rule of law. The failure to adhere to rules and regulations even on insignificant issues, some councilors believed, established the seriousness of an abuse of power that could not be ignored by a responsible council looking to maintain respect for the law and adherence to their own oaths of office:
- May 2007 – During the administration of Mayor Mollis, the crumbling public works garage and the land it occupied in a residential district were sold to a private developer who planned to demolish the building and erect about 18 houses on the land. Mollis secured a bond to build a new DPW garage in a more suitable commercial zone adjacent to the closed municipal landfill. Shortly after entering into the purchase and sales (P&S) agreement the buyer was having second thoughts about the purchase because of a slumping real estate market. Lombardi, who had opposed the Mollis plan as a candidate, decided to abort it as the mayor. Without the knowledge of the Council he released the buyer of his obligation to buy the property despite the existence of a valid contract for the purchase. He also returned the buyer’s $50,000 deposit money which would have reverted to the town had the buyer violated the terms of the purchase and sales agreement. Lombardi opted instead for the expansion and renovation of the existing building using some of the same bond money to complete the work. Lombardi announced plans to use the town’s inspectors as laborers to accomplish some of the demolition and reconstruction raising further questions about the impartiality of the subsequent inspection process. The Council ordered him to suspend his plan and proceed with the formerly authorized construction of the new building declaring that the bond issue and the use of the bond money was the product of two public hearings. Altering the use of the funds, some Council members argued, would require another public hearing to determine if the town’s people wanted to proceed with the renovation or continue to make due with the existing building and use that portion of the bond proceeds to pay down the bond. Again, the mayor defied the Council’s order and proceeded with the demolition and reconstruction of the old DPW building. Never addressed was the question of how the same inspectors who performed the labor could then inspect their own work for purposes of granting an occupancy permit. Finally, in canceling the $1.2 million land purchase, revenue that had been counted in the revenue projections of the Mollis budget ordinance, Mayor Lombardi left a $1.2 million gap in the revenue side of the budget thereby creating a fiscal year deficit that he later blamed on his predecessor, Ralph Mollis.
- June 2007 - Several years prior, the Council, by ordinance, established a “Wall of Mayors” in the Town Hall on which all portraits of town mayors were to be hung. Each mayor may provide a framed portrait at his own personal expense thereby costing the taxpayers nothing. Mayor Sisto provided his portrait following the inauguration of Mayor Lombardi. Lombardi refused to hang it saying that Sisto was elevated to the position as a result of a vacancy left when Mollis resigned to become Secretary of State and was not elected to the position. Therefore, Lombardi reasoned, Sisto was never really mayor and his portrait was not eligible for display in the Hall of Mayors. The Council disagreed saying that Sisto was administered the oath of office and served in the position on a daily basis for 3 months. He occupied the office, prepared and submitted the budget and performed all the other routine, daily duties of the mayor. In June 2007 the Council voted unanimously to order the portrait hung citing President Gerald R. Ford as an example of someone who is recognized as holding an office despite not having been elected to it. Lombardi steadfastly refused to abide by the ordinance or the Council’s directive. Ultimately, he “allowed” the portrait to be hung, but in the Council chamber, not the Hall of Mayors.
- June 2007 - The mayor usurped the Council’s authority by entering into lease agreements without Council approval. In so doing, the Council alleged, he wasted taxpayer’s money, and demonstrated questionable ethics. Lombardi leased a building from which the police Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) inspections on used cars purchased from outside the state could be performed. He then contracted with the building owner’s wife to perform the actual inspections. Perhaps even more egregious, the beneficiaries of the no-bid, unlawful contract were campaign contributors. When called on the issue Lombardi said the program, with its more convenient location and female inspector was designed to increase the number of inspections the town performs and will generate additional revenue for the town. At the end of two years the annual contractual cost of $28,000 exceeded by $4,000 the revenue generated from the inspection program. The number of inspections did not increase as he expected. The Council ordered Lombardi to cancel the arrangements and have the inspections performed at the police department using existing personnel. All of Rhode Island’s other 38 municipalities do as much, the council said. Despite the program’s financial failure, Lombardi refused the Council’s directive and continued the arrangement for another two years in violation of both R.I. state law and the town charter. Only after it was disclosed that the independent contractor was overcharging by 50% the $10.00 fee that R.I. General Law allowed him to charge for inspections, did the facility owner decide to close the facility. Lombardi, who obviously had no problem with the violation of the law, lamented the decision to close the inspections garage saying, “We were just starting to realize a profit from the facility.”
- June 2007 - The Council questioned the hiring of Polisena Construction, a company owned by a member of the town’s Zoning Board, to perform no-bid work on the Town Hall and several other town-owned buildings. The mayor refused to comply with a Council request for records pertaining to the hiring. After obtaining the records through the filing of a complaint to the Attorney General resulting in a citation to the mayor for violating the state’s Public Records laws, it was learned that Polisena Construction was paid in excess of $900,000 for various town work. Over $400,000 of that was for work that was performed without benefit of a competitive bid as required by R.I. General Law. The mayor refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing even after the R.I. Ethics Commission found the construction company’s owner, Vincent Polisena, in violation of state ethics laws for accepting no-bid work from a town in which he served as an appointed official. Polisena was forced to resign his position on the zoning board and pay $8,500 in fines to the Ethics Commission. It was later learned that Polisena Construction was also hired by Lombardi to install a new roof to his building that housed Luxury Cleaners, the business Lombardi had run for years. Questions arose as to the propriety of the recipient of no-bid town contracts doing work on Lombardi’s personal property as there was certainly an appearance of a quid-pro-quo.
- August 2007 – Mayor Lombardi purchased a fire truck from a Pennsylvania volunteer fire department. The price tag was over $150,000 yet the purchase was not subjected to the purchasing laws of the state and the town. These laws require that any aggregate expenditure in excess of $5,000 must be the subject of a competitive bid. At the August meeting the Town Council questioned the purchase process. I asked, “Would it surprise you to learn that a similar truck could be purchased on e-Bay for $137,000?” The question was hypothetical and meant to imply that there would be no way of knowing that there were cheaper alternatives available if the purchase was not the product of a competitive bid. Rather than acknowledge that he overlooked the bidding requirement, Lombardi demonstrated his ignorance by asking the Council to admonish me for lying to the public by telling them there was a truck available for $137,000. In response I tried to explain that it is not even possible, grammatically or any other way, for a hypothetical question to be a lie. Lombardi would hear none of it.
- August 2007 – Mayor Lombardi purchased eight dump trucks from the State Department of Transportation for a total cost exceeding $10,000 without seeking competitive bids. Although he bragged about his frugality, it turned out that most of the trucks were good only for parts and could not be used on the road. When the cost of repairs was factored in, the purchase did not appear to be the good deal Lombardi had touted.
- August 2007 – Lombardi canceled a lease arrangement with the Green Acres Country Day School that had been renting a town-owned building for many years. The action came just weeks prior to the opening of school leaving many parents with no place to take their children. The business owner did not support Lombardi in his election against Sisto and the Council believed that the lease cancellation was a vengeful act. Green Acres had a long-standing contract that allowed the lease at a price that was below market rent because the lease required that Green Acres rather than the town maintain the building at the business-owners expense. Lombardi ordered his building inspectors into the building and they deemed the town-owned building unsafe because of several code violations. The cited violations included such “egregious” offenses as too many children’s drawings taped on the interior walls and screens on windows that opened out. The Council noted that the violations were less problematic than those in many of the public school buildings throughout the town and didn’t warrant shutting this building down. The standoff resulted in an agreement in which the owner of the day care would modify the building for compliance and terminate the lease at the conclusion of the school year. A subsequent Council-ordered inspection of all public school buildings resulted in a 55-page report detailing violations in those buildings that included antiquated fire alarms, draperies that were not fire-retardant, faulty and missing fire escapes, missing sinks in bathrooms, padlocked emergency exits, broken urinals and toilets, air conditioners plugged into extension cords and many other health and safety issues. The report indicated to the Council members that the mayor’s actions against the owners of Green Acres may not have been taken out of concern for the health and safety of the children, but rather as a punitive measure toward a political opponent.
- September 2007 – While preparing for the annual 9/11 commemoration of the attacks on America, Mayor Lombardi discovered that the monument that was erected by the Mollis Administration many years earlier had used two local people as models for the image of a police officer and firefighter that were etched on the stone. The firefighter’s face was that of Mollis supporter and then Fire Chief Steven Catanzaro who Lombardi replaced as the department’s chief immediately upon taking office. The model used to etch the face of a police officer was Frank Bursie, a longtime town employee. The defacement violated the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), a federal law that protects an artist’s right to prevent a purchaser of artwork from altering or destroying the artwork without permission of the artist. The artist did not give permission for the alteration and, expressed his displeasure to the North Providence Breeze in an article entitled “9/11 Memorial Artist Speaks Out.” Randall Rosenbaum, the Director of the R.I. Council on the Arts, noted the violation in a letter to the editor produced in the September 29, 2007 Providence Journal. The Council ordered the monument restored. Lombardi refused. As a result of Lombardi’s vengeance, the town was exposed to a law suit and current condition of the monument remains, to some, an unsightly disgrace.
- September 2007 – Mayor Lombardi closed a newly constructed skateboard park and relocated it to an area of the Stephen Olney Park dedicated as a parking lot. He justified his action by saying that the site Mollis had selected within Stephen Olney Park didn’t have adequate access for emergency vehicles. Widening the road to provide access, as it turns out, would have been much cheaper than the relocation of the entire skateboard park and wouldn’t have eliminated many of the much-needed parking spaces. To add insult to injury, the new location was on land directly across the street from the home of Azarig Kooloian, a Mollis supporter and the person who donated the land to the town with the stipulation that it be used only for parking. Now, that neighbor's generosity has been rewarded with a requirement that he endure the noise emanating from the park's use by skateboarders. The relocation also jeopardized the balance of state funding for the project and violated a state law that gives the local town council sole discretion on how local parkland is used. The Council voted unanimously to halt the relocation. The mayor ignored the vote and proceeded with his plans.
- September 2007 – The mayor terminated Lisa-Beth Marwell, the long-time Clerk of the Board of Canvassers, and a Mollis/Sisto supporter, without proper authority. The Council contended the firing was in violation of a state law that provided only the Board of Canvassers itself with the ability to hire and fire all staff positions within the office. The Board, through an attorney member, pointed out the potential conflict of a Clerk of Canvassers owing his/her position to an elected official whose name will appear on a ballot overseen by that office instead of appointment by a non-elected board. The mayor ignored the admonition and hired a new Clerk. Upon the new Clerk’s untimely death three years later, Lombardi promptly hired her replacement. The issue each time was not that the appointed person lacked the qualifications to perform the functions of the position, but rather the act of appointment itself ignored the required separation of powers and created a potential conflict of interest.
- October 2007 – Mayor Lombardi convinced the Council to purchase land adjacent to the police and fire complex. The parcel of land, which housed the Golden Dragon Chinese restaurant, was for sale by owner. The Council was told that the mayor would use bond money remaining from the DPW project for the purchase and would not renovate it for conversion to office space until the adequate renovation funding could be identified. In the meantime, he promised, the property would be used to provide additional parking and new access to the current building for people with mobility impairment. Additionally, Lombardi contended, the restaurant equipment inside the facility would be sold for some $20,000.00, money that would be used to offset the purchase price. After receiving Council clearance, the mayor hired a Realtor to handle the purchase. Rather than issue a bid for real estate services, he hired the long-time friend of his Director of Administration who was paid $21,000 despite the fact that the building was for sale by owner. As soon as the closing took place, the mayor began the renovations in direct contradiction to the promises made to the Council before the vote to purchase the property was taken. The sale of the restaurant equipment that was supposed to provide net revenue of $20,000 to the town actually realized a net gain of under $200.00. According to the town personnel, several barrels of copper and other recyclable material salvaged from the restaurant disappeared without ever being accounted for, and much of the restaurant equipment that was unsold at auction disappeared as well. Lombardi told the Council that the equipment was worthless and was sent to the Central Landfill for disposal, but the requested records/receipts for the disposal were never produced. Ironically, the Director of Administration had opened a new restaurant in Smithfield at about the same time fueling speculation that the equipment slated for sale was diverted into his establishment. Simply producing the disposal records from the Central Landfill would have quelled any rumors to that effect, but the Mayor refused to do so.
This is just a partial list of accusations that the Council leveled against the mayor. It seemed to some that the town charter and the Rhode Island General Laws were anathema to the mayor. While fairly consistent in his disregard of separation of powers, adherence to the town charter and compliance with state and federal laws, Mayor Lombardi was considerably deficient in taking responsibility for the indiscretions. Richard Dujardin reported for the Providence Journal on October 4, 2007:
“Mayor Charles Lombardi is refusing to say what he will do in the wake of a series of Town Council directives calling on him to reverse course, both on the skateboard park and on the building of a new public highway garage, and barring him from spending bond issue money without getting council approval.
In what may well be the biggest challenge mounted since Lombardi became mayor in April, the council Tuesday night called on the mayor to return to the original plan to build a new highway garage on Smithfield Road and to abandon his plan to renovate the existing one on Malfalda Street.
Council members also called on him to return the skateboard park that he recently had dismantled to its original site at the bottom of a long hill on the High Service Avenue side of Capt. Stephen Olney Park. They also approved an ordinance requiring him to get council approval for every expenditure from a $3.5 million bond issue.
‘No comment, no comment, no comment,’ was Lombardi’s response when asked yesterday about the council’s actions…”
No, rather than accept responsibility he attacked the motives of those who would dare question his many violations. ‘“I’m not going to get into playing a political game with the Council, especially those people on the council who have their own political agenda.’ Lombardi then assailed some of the council members that he views as the obstructionists who are trying to block his moves,” the article continued. Responding to the reporter’s questions I said that the mayor was right, I do have an agenda. “My agenda is to provide good services to the people of North Providence, and to do it according to the law. It’s about good government versus his way of government. His way is to run it [the town] as a dictatorship and to do whatever he wants.”
The Mayor Gains Council Support
Despite the initial solidarity of the Council members, Burchfield, Douglas and Zambarano began supporting Lombardi on a more regular basis and eventually decided to support the mayor in many of his activities despite the illegal or unethical manner in which the mayor enacted them. Something seemed amiss and because of my historical perspective, I had suspicions that there was a quid-pro-quo involved. I discussed the issues with the Council members several times and explained how the mayor was acting both irresponsibly and outside the scope of his authority. In defiance of their previous positions regarding the mayor’s actions, they would hear none of it. I became very suspicious of their sudden change of heart.
Burchfield made several innocuous comments that fueled speculation about his motives. On one occasion he boldly said in response to newly-elected District 2 councilman Frank Manfredi’s complaint about Lombardi’s unlawful no-bid activity, “Hey, that’s politics!” Such a cavalier attitude about alleged wrongdoing from a councilman who at one time opposed such illegal behavior by the mayor added to my suspicions.
One day, while walking in the halls of the State House, Joe Burchfield said to me, “Why can't we all just get along and solve the town's problems? “Our job is not to get along,” I explained.
“Our job is to act as a checks and balance on the Executive Branch of government to ensure that it complies with all the state laws and town charter provisions that were enacted to provide for a good government with a sound quality-of-life for its residents. If we all 'just get along,'” I concluded, “we wouldn't need a council. The Mayor alone would suffice just fine!”
I didn’t know it at the time, but there were things going on beyond my comprehension that fueled Burchfield’s comments.
The motivation began to take on clarity, however, when I learned that a company that Ray Douglas worked for, and is alleged to have had an ownership interest in, received a no-bid award as one of the select few companies to make the town's tow list, a very lucrative designation assigned by the mayor. Further, I learned that John Zambarano was lobbying to obtain a position for his son on the town fire department and toward that effort his son was placed on a short list of potential candidates. The mayor too awarded this position and Zambarano later told me that it was promised to his son who, with some “help,” had passed the required, town administered agility and written tests.
Burchfield Arranges a Meeting with Developer Richard Baccari
During the time that public disagreements and a political feud with the Lombardi Administration intensified I received a call from Joe Burchfield. His tone was more conciliatory than guarded as he explained that Richard Baccari was proposing to develop a strip of land on Mineral Spring Avenue across from the North Providence High School. The land had been the site of a defunct bus junkyard owned by the Bargamian family and was a source of neighborhood complaints for many years. Around 2006 the land was cleaned under orders of the Department of Environmental Management and the cleared site was sold to Kevin O'Sullivan, a developer with experience in North Providence real estate. On this land he planned to build up-scale condominiums and had successfully sought a zone change from commercial (C) to residential general (RG) to allow for the construction. After the collapse of the real estate market in Rhode Island, however, the land sat vacant and the plans were abandoned. Now, mega-developer, Richard Baccari, had an option to purchase the land conditioned upon a zone change from residential general back to commercial, a designation required for the proposed construction of a Stop & Shop and perhaps a restaurant at the site. In addition to the zone change the plan would require an amendment to the Town's Comprehensive Plan. Both the zone change and the comprehensive plan amendment required Council approval.
Burchfield had apparently promised Baccari that he would arrange a meeting with the councilmen from the district to provide him with an opportunity to explain the project to councilmembers in the hopes of garnering Council support. Councilman Manny Giusti met me and Burchfield outside the State House where we each worked so as to make the short 2-mile trek to the downtown offices of Churchill Banks in a single car. While in route, Joe explained that he had already met with Baccari and was firmly in support of the project. Perhaps because he must have sensed my hesitancy or possibly because of my history as a skeptic of projects he supported, Burchfield asked me to keep an open mind.
Upon arriving at the office it became obvious that Joe had been there before. He clearly knew his way around the building and led me and Giusti directly to the appropriate suite. We were directed into a large conference room and were quickly joined by Richard Baccari Sr. and his son, Richard Baccari Jr.
The elder Baccari explained the plan while the younger carefully laid out color drawings of the proposed development. The plans did look attractive with greenery and plenty of parking area. It is my experience that such plans always do, but the actual development seldom maintains the beauty conveyed in the original plans and I learned not to get excited by the impressions.
Rather, I focused my attention on the identification of quality-of-life related issues. Baccari spoke of the benefits of a supermarket in an area where so many senior citizens lived (there are 5 elderly housing complexes within walking distance of the site), and the tax benefits to the town as a whole. I posed a battery of questions related to potential problems that the development might engender. “What about the traffic congestion that would be created in an area already over congested by the proposed Lowes and the Douglas Avenue traffic light? How will this impact the value of the surrounding properties? Most importantly, how do the neighbors feel about the development? I represent them,” I told the Baccari's, “and I will do what is in their best interest.”
Baccari Sr. said that he had already met with the neighbors and they were supportive of the project. “If, they support it,” I told them, “then I would give it serious consideration.” The meeting adjourned with no commitments from either me or Giusti. However, on the ride back to the State House I expressed surprise that Baccari would already have the support of the neighbors since I had no prior knowledge of the project until Burchfield called me. Had the neighbors been contacted by a developer with plans of this magnitude, surely someone from the area would have called me! The entire episode left me with an uneasy feeling that Burchfield had already promised his support and his help in convincing the other Council members that the project deserved their support as well. My experience told me that he would probably succeed.
I told Margie of the incident but agreed that I shouldn't jump to any conclusions. Perhaps, Margie imagined, Burchfield was just trying to include me in routine Council activities as a sign of long-overdue acceptance. “It might actually be a good sign,” she said. I still had my doubts.
National League of Cities Conference
Margie had long suggested that I socialize with the other Council members in the hope that we might develop a relationship that would put an end to the political tug-of-war that existed between us. One way to achieve this, she noted, was by attending the annual conferences and spending time together in a more social, relaxed setting, one removed from the stresses and disagreements of politics. I had attended conferences with fellow councilors in both Los Angeles and Kansas City in the past, but I preferred attending the informative sessions to socializing. I enjoyed brainstorming with Council members from around the country that might be experiencing problems similar to the ones that we face in North Providence. As a result, I found myself spending little to no “quality” time with the other members of the North Providence Council during those conferences.
Margie believed that I should treat this conference a little differently and use it as an opportunity to develop a good relationship with the others. She reasoned that this might help gain their support of my programs and proposals as we move forward. Margie accompanied me (at our expense) and we joined John Zambarano, his sister MaryAnn DeAngelus, Joe Burchfield, and Ray Douglas. John Fleming, who was retiring from the Council after serving the remainder of John Sisto's term of office, was already in South Florida with family and joined us in Orlando for a couple of days. Fleming paid all of his own expenses since he was not running for reelection.
On the evening of November 12, 2008 reservations were made for dinner at P.F. Chang’s, a Chinese restaurant in Orlando. We spent a relaxing couple of hours telling funny stories and engaging in small talk. After dinner, we discussed the possibility of going for drinks but could decide on neither a time nor a place. Margie and I decided to return to the hotel and await the call promised by others telling us where to meet them. The call never came and we figured that they simply decided against going for drinks.
The others did indeed get together for drinks however despite not extending the invitation to us. They met at a bar called the Blue Martini in Orlando. There, drinks flowed generously and removed whatever prohibitions might have previously existed. The chatter eventually turned to business. John Zambarano stood, walked between Douglas and Burchfield, and with one arm extended around each of them, said. “Do you think we can get the Stop & Shop approved at the December meeting, I was really counting on that money for Christmas.” The comment was not lost on the keen ears of John Fleming who was apparently incredulous that they would discuss something of this magnitude in front of him.
Meanwhile, back in North Providence, Mayor Lombardi was engaged in some discussions of his own. In early 2008 Lowe’s Home Improvement Store had announced its intention to lease the site of the former Rizzo Ford Automobile Dealership for the location of its newest retail store. The mayor worked very hard to promote the deal and began a public relations program to convince the residents that the facility would provide much-needed tax revenue for the town and improve the aesthetics along the busy intersection of Mineral Spring and Douglas Avenues. The details of this development also ignited a flame that unfolded a chain of events that led to the unraveling of the political structure of North Providence.
Lowe’s is a nationally recognized retail organization and bringing them to North Providence is an example of one of the things that the Lombardi Administration may have gotten right. My initial fears of massive traffic jams at the already overcrowded intersection were addressed with the company’s decision to use some of their land to add travel lanes to both roadways stretching the entire length of their property. Yet, my overarching concern was the protection of the remaining Rockwell Street neighbors bordering the subject property to the west. Like the Lowe’s property, Rockwell Street was within the bounds of Council District 1.
Lowe’s had already purchased all of the residential property on the east side of Rockwell Street in order to create what they described as a treed and landscaped buffer between their development and residences remaining on the west side of the street. The developers held a series of public meetings in which they explained to abutting neighbors and elected officials that the houses would be removed from the buffer strip and the land would remain open and wooded.
Rockwell Street is approximately 30’ wide and sits at an elevation about 20’ – 25’ above the ground elevation of the Lowes property. The Lowe’s plan was to construct a 20’ retaining wall to separate the commercial land from the residential buffer zone on Rockwell St. above the development site. The plan also included the erection of a 6’ wooden fence at the top of the retaining wall. Rockwell Street residents looking out their front windows could expect to see a beautifully landscaped buffer strip, as deep as 80’ at some points, with a 6’ fence at the end of it. The top of the Lowe’s building itself was not expected to be visible to them. The neighbors were satisfied with the plan as proposed and I promised as their elected representative to protect their interests by ensuring Lowes' adherence to the plan.
On January 6, 2009, however, Milton Baxter, a Lowe’s representative, presented the Council with a request from Lowes for a temporary easement on Rockwell Street for the purpose of placing underground security braces perpendicular to the 20’ tall retaining wall. The mayor had already approved of the plan, and Council President Burchfield was trying to conclude the discussion of the matter with a quick favorable vote. I interrupted the vote to ask the representative why he would need to excavate the street to place the support ties when Lowe’s had some 80’ of buffer land that was acquired between the street and the location of the wall that could be used for that purpose. Mr. Baxter matter-of-factly responded, “Well the wall was moved to a point closer to the edge of the road.” I was incredulous! “How could that be,” I asked “when the original plan called for the wall to be approximately 80’ to the east of the road at the border of the commercial and the residential land?” Obviously shaken, he stuttered a bit and said that he was mistaken the plan wasn’t changed. He explained that he does not ordinarily tend to these type matters for Lowe’s but was filling in for someone else that had a greater understanding of the project.
Suspecting that something was amiss, I moved for immediate postponement of the vote until additional information could be obtained that would clarify the situation. No one would offer a second to my motion as Baxter insisted that if action were not taken at this meeting the entire project would be in jeopardy. Burchfield agreed saying that the mayor told him the same thing. Again I was incredulous. “A multi-million dollar project could not possibly hinge on the council’s immediate granting of an easement,” I said.
Eventually I was able to convince one of the Council members to second my motion for a delay and at least bring the issue to a vote. Despite my best efforts and some parliamentary maneuvering, the motion to approve the easement carried 4-3 with Burchfield, Zambarano, Douglas and Joe Giammarco voting in favor. Burchfield then said he would arrange for a meeting of the mayor and his staff, the town inspectors, the interested Council members and some residents of Rockwell Street to resolve the discrepancies.
To my thinking, something was not right with this vote. I worried that someone might have been offered a quid-pro-quo in exchange for his silence about the change of plans. I recognized Zambarano’s familiar nonsensical defense of his favorable vote, but I had no proof of any wrongdoing. What I did know is that I promised the residents of Rockwell Street that I would protect their interests and I wasn’t about to let them down. Although, I realized that it would be difficult to convince them that I was sincere in my effort to protect their interests in the face of the recent Council action allowing the easement.
After the meeting I returned home seething and, as always, vented to my wife. Margie always lent a sympathetic ear, and I generally felt better after unloading my anger. This night was different. Simply venting didn’t help. I felt a need to do something more to ensure that the neighbors' rights were protected against what I perceived to be unscrupulous and potentially corrupt actions of some Town Council members and possibly the administration. Margie suggested that maybe it was time to go back to the FBI with my grievances.
About a year earlier I visited the local field office of the FBI and spoke to a duty agent explaining all of the things that had been happening. He listened attentively and asked if I had actual proof of any criminal wrongdoing. I told him I did not. He suggested that if I could provide proof of what I was alleging then he might be able to help me. The actions of my colleagues and the members of the Administration frustrated me, but I wasn’t willing to do what was apparently required to get the proof. Nothing came of that visit.
Now I knew that there were improprieties going on and, for the sake of protecting the interest of the very people that I took an oath to serve, I was willing to try reaching out to the Agency again. Margie and I spent the balance of the next week discussing the implications that working with the FBI to expose what I perceived as government corruption might bring. We knew that doing so could potentially cost me my job as Deputy Secretary of State. We suspected that we would suffer the loss of friendships that we enjoyed for 20 years or more. We knew that some misguided and small-minded people would call me a rat and that the label would follow me around for many years, maybe forever. We thought that we might be jeopardizing our own safety. We also knew that we might be forced to leave Rhode Island and the only place we had ever called home. We knew all this, but decided to move forward anyway. To do less, we reasoned, would constitute the acceptance of corruption in order to maintain the quality of life we now enjoyed. In our minds, that would make us no different than those who might engage in corrupt acts in order to improve their own quality of life. We both knew what we had to do.
On January 14th Margie phoned Courtney Cox, an acquaintance who worked for the FBI in Massachusetts. She in turn provided the name of a local field agent. I placed a call to that field agent the very next day, but was forced to leave a voice mail message. On January 16th I received a return call from Special Agent James Pitcavage. I explained the reason for my call. He seemed interested and we arranged to meet a few days later at Panera Bread, a small upscale chain cafe in Cranston.
Related Slideshow: Rhode Island’s History of Political Corruption
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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