Wired: 2011 Part 2, A Book by Paul Caranci
Monday, July 03, 2017
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Sometime in 2008, Lombardi decided to reward another of his political contributors with one of his trademarked “political plums” that generally come at great expense to the taxpayers. Sal Esposito, a fairly large contributor to the mayor’s election efforts and owner of a used car dealership on the east side of town was unilaterally awarded a lucrative contract to inspect motor vehicles with out-of-state titles. R.I. General Law 31-3.1-4(d) Certificates of Title and Security Interests, requires that each municipality must have such a facility located within its municipal borders for the purpose of ensuring the legitimacy of vehicles sold in R.I. that originate from another state. The mayor never sought the approval of the Council when awarding this contract despite the fact that only the Council can approve building leases. The reason for the mayor’s devious avoidance of Council approval was soon obvious. In addition to conducting inspections from the same building that housed his used car dealership, Esposito’s wife was given the task of conducting the inspections. For their services, the Espositos' were paid $28,220 per year, which included the lease of the building and the salary for the inspector. Not a bad part time job!
In addition to the most obvious conflict of interest and the failure to seek Council approval, the arrangement violated state law. The language of the law is clear that such a facility must be operated by the Chief of Police or his designee (who must be an employee of the police department) and that all inspections must be performed at a municipally owned building. Despite the clarity of the law, the mayor chose, once again, to ignore it and unlawfully use the service as a “perk” to reward a friend and campaign contributor.
Once learning of the arrangement, the Council made several attempts to retrieve information regarding the awarding of the contract and the cost of operating the program. Virtually each and every attempt was unsuccessful. The Council, as it had become accustomed since Lombardi took office, had to resort to discussing the issuance of a subpoena to obtain the information. In response to those discussions, Lombardi instructed his Chief of Police, John Whiting, to attend a meeting of the Council in an attempt to persuade the Council members that the privatization of the VIN Inspection Station was meritorious. That attempt proved fruitless, however, as Whiting couldn’t get past the questions regarding the awarding of a no-bid contract and the use of non-police personnel to conduct the inspections. He told the Council that the decision to make the contract award took place before his appointment as Chief and therefore was not his problem. Likewise, he said that despite the appearance of non-compliance with the law, it was actually lawful and the operation was costing less than it had under a previous arrangement where a retired police sergeant was hired to conduct the inspections from the Public Works garage. When Councilman Manfredi refused to move beyond the questions of conformance to the letter of the law, Whiting left the meeting in disgust with terse words for the Council as he quickly stormed out of the chambers.
For its part, the Council voted to order the VIN Station closed and for the operation to be relocated to a town-owned building and to be operated by police personnel in conformance with the law. In addition it was requested that Chief Whiting attend a future meeting to discuss how he intended to comply with the Council’s order. Subsequent to the meeting, and in conformance with theCouncil’s demand, Town Clerk Mary Ann DeAngelus sent the Chief a poorly worded letter that read in part,
“A motion was made…to send a communication to you regarding your scheduled appearance before the Town Council at the October 5, 2010 meeting concerning the VIN Station. Mr. Manfredi stated that if you are appearing to discuss this matter with an opinion that conflicts [with] what was ordered by the Town Council at a previous meeting, that you should not bother to come to the meeting.”
On September 30, 2010 Chief Whiting fired off a letter of his own addressed to “Town Council Members.” His letter was filled with veiled chastisements toward the Council’s veteran members while pledging to work with them as well as the newly elected members in addressing this and other issues. Speaking directly to the VIN Station the Chief wrote,
“Previous statements made by myself concerning the issue were, in my opinion, not even listened to. It appeared as though minds were made up even before I spoke on the issue and I was expected to rubber stamp one view or another. According to a provision of the R.I. General Laws I am to provide a VIN inspection service, Period! The law does not specify the particulars it just mandates that such a service is to be provided by every municipality…My input upon the situation should carry much weight since it impacts a police mandated service….”
In addition to an outrageous display of ego, the claims made in his letter were blatant lies that, to me, indicated that the Chief was less interested in upholding the law than in promoting the unlawful activity of the person who hired him. But, so as to remove any doubt about what the truth is, the exact language of Section (d) of R.I. General Law 31-3.4 cited by the Chief as the controlling authority is copied below. It reads:
“Chiefs of police, their designees, who shall be employees of the police department, or, in emergency, the administrator of the division of motor vehicles or his or her designee shall conduct the inspection of the vehicle identifying number, and certify, on forms provided by the division, that it has been found to conform to the description given in the application or any other form of the identity of the vehicle the division reasonably requires. An inspection fee of ten dollars ($10.00) shall be assessed against the applicant by the city or town whose police conduct the inspection. The inspection by the chiefs of police, or their designees, who shall be employees of the police department, shall be conducted at the local city or town police station or at a municipally owned building…” (Emphasis added)
There is no ambiguity here. The law is abundantly clear and very specific on at least three issues. 1) The inspections must be performed by an employee of the police department; 2) the fee charged must be $10.00. There is no departure from that amount, and; 3) the inspections must be performed at the police station or a municipally owned building. Since the fee being charged by the Espositos’ was $15.00 for the inspection of out of town vehicles and the inspections were being performed by a private citizen in a privately owned building, the mayor’s arrangement, which was enthusiastically supported and defended, both verbally and in writing, by the town’s highest ranking law enforcement officer, violated at least three provisions of R.I. General Law. These violations do not even take into account the no-bid contract awarded by Lombardi to his campaign contributor or the conflict of interest posed by housing an inspection facility in the car dealership of a man whose own dealership cars are inspected by his wife!
The issuance of this letter was apparently insufficient for the egotistical Chief however. Rather than avoid further discussion on a matter in which he was clearly lying, Whiting fired off a second letter to the Town Council less than a week later on October 4, 2010. The Police Chief’s latest salvo cited the $55,736 dollar expense of the lawful hiring of a retired police sergeant that previously conducted the inspections and compared it to the unlawful $28,220 cost of the current program as if the “potential” to save money justified breaking the law. “Although there is no way to show the future profits or loss from the operation of the VIN station one thing is clear,” the chief wrote in his letter, “the current operation is more successful than when it was a municipal run operation.” Amazingly, in defending and promoting the continuation of the unlawful activity perpetrated by the mayor, the Chief argued that the current system is losing less money than the previous system did. He completely ignored the third possibility advocated by the Council - moving the inspections to a town owned facility and conducting the inspections with existing police personnel including police clerks and dispatchers as many other municipalities were doing. In adopting the Council’s approach the service would cost no additional money and the approximately $20,000 the town received by providing the service would actually be profit that could be used to reduce the need for higher property taxes.
After digesting the information contained in his letters it was clear to me that this Chief was not above breaking the law and that his behavior, despite his admonitions to the contrary, were as politically motivated as any of the illegal activity of which theCouncil had accused the mayor. This man, I thought, is not an honest cop!
The mayor and the chief continued to ignore the Council’s original demand that the VIN station operation be discontinued and substituted with one that conformed to the law. Rather, they continued to defend their actions and promote the merits of this “clever and innovative” approach to providing the inspection service. The Council on which Frank and I served, and the subsequent Council led by newly elected Council President Catanzaro, continued to pursue the issue with the Administration.
Finally the Administration relented and agreed to issue a competitive bid to select a new site for, and operator of, the inspection service. In what appeared to be a compromise at best, or a lack of comprehension of R.I. General Law at worst, the focus of the newly elected Council’s “reform” of the program was unfortunately focused on the bidding process rather than conformance to the law. To that end, the service became the subject of a competitive bid.
Initially there were two bidders. The Espositos’ submitted the more expensive of the two proposals. Inexplicably, however, after Chief Whiting visited the office of the alternate bidder, the low bid was withdrawn leaving Esposito as the sole respondent. The Esposito's “successful” bid had an initial bid price of $28,200 per year, escalating in each of the five years of the bid and culminating with a contract price of $31,800. Despite this dubious compliance with the public bidding requirements of R.I. General Law and the Town charter, Lombardi nevertheless failed to acknowledge that he needed Council approval to enter into the lease agreement. Instead, he described his procurement of the leased premises as a “service contract” which according to his Town Solicitor, Anthony Gallone, required no Council approval. This, I suppose, would perhaps be the only “service contract” in North Providence that specifies the type of structure from which the service must be conducted without being considered a “lease” of that space. But Lombardi had found very creative ways to violate the law in the past and this bid award and lease agreement were apparently no exception.
President Catanzaro was not satisfied with the half-baked arrangement and continued to pursue the issue. Almost before the new arrangement even began however the issue reached its boiling point. Sal Esposito was scheduled to address the Council at their meeting of April 5, 2011. While his attendance was no surprise, his message clearly was. Blaming Council President Kristen Catanzaro for turning his Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) Inspection service into a political football, he abruptly announced that he would close down the service immediately. The announcement took the Council by surprise, and, unless it had been arranged by Mayor Lombardi and Chief Whiting in advance, it also left them scrambling to find a quick replacement for the service that had been conducted for the past three years by Esposito Properties, LLC at 1279 Mineral Spring Avenue.
Joseph LaPlante, Editor of the North Breeze, reported, “Esposito told the council that he and his family have been caught in the political crossfire between opponents of Mayor Charles A. Lombardi and the administration. Town Council President Kristen Catanzaro had criticized the agreement between the town and Esposito, asserting it was [a] bad deal for taxpayers. She said vehicle owners were charged $15 for a VIN check despite the state setting the fee at $10 per inspection. The VIN station operation had been put out to bid at the council's request.” LaPlante continued, “Col. John J. Whiting, police chief, told council members Tuesday that in order for him to open another VIN station, he will need to both hire an extra police officer and find space at the police station for the enterprise. Whiting's budget for the next fiscal year was submitted with the mayor's budget on Tuesday night. The chief told council members he will need additional money – about $75,000 – to cover salary and benefits for an additional police officer.”
Apparently Whiting thought better of his belligerence and subsequently announced that the police would provide the inspection service at the police annex building three days per week for two hours each day. By April 20th, however, he announced that the plan wasn't working out due to a lack of manpower and suspended the North Providence inspection service advising residents “to bring their vehicles to neighboring towns for VIN checks for the foreseeable future.” Clearly, Whiting was running afoul of the law once again by not providing the inspection service within the Town’s limits as required by RIGL. The law aside however, Whiting's total lack of cooperation signaled the continuation of a significant oppositional attitude toward Town Council directives, something he obviously learned from his boss, Charlie Lombardi.
Not only does every other Rhode Island municipal government conduct its VIN inspections using police personnel, but the North Providence Department, by Whiting's own volition, has a plethora of unneeded police personnel. While the VIN station drama was dominating the local headlines, North Providence was forced to hire seven additional police officers as a result of a poorly thought out effort by Lombardi to reduce the staff through attrition from the contractually mandated 72 to a low of 59 police officers. Naturally the union grieved the contractual breach. When ordered by the arbitrator to immediately restore the police department to its mandated staffing levels, the police union graciously offered a cost-saving plan to allow the mayor to increase the staff to only 66 members immediately with an additional 6 men being added gradually over a number of years. Lombardi reluctantly agreed to the plan saying that such an arrangement made the best of a bad situation in which the union was forcing the town to add additional officers that were not needed to provide for the public safety. “The town has been operating safely and efficiently with 59 officers,” he said, and Whiting agreed.
Despite the addition of these seven “unnecessary” officers, Whiting still argued that the town didn't have sufficient personnel to provide for VIN inspections for a mere 6 hours per week. While Esposito operated the service, they averaged about 10 inspections per day. At an average of about 5 minutes per inspection, the entire workload amounts to under one hour per day, five days per week. It seems impossible then that none of the seven police officers that work a combined total of 245 hours per week, none of which are necessary to provide for the public safety according to the mayor and his chief, can find a mere one hour per day to perform this service! In fact, other municipalities sometimes assign the duty to a secretary within the police department when no officers are available to perform the function.
The VIN Station Becomes the Subject of a State Hearing
During the week of April 25th, Catanzaro learned that the R.I. Division of Motor Vehicles Motor Vehicle Dealers License and Hearing Board had scheduled a public hearing regarding the town's VIN station. She attended the hearing, as did Lombardi and Whiting. The Licensing Board, which included a member from the R.I. State Police, berated the town's conduct and accused Lombardi of failing to provide for the required state inspection of the local facility from which the inspections were to be conducted. He also noted that the town was violating R.I. State law by charging $15.00 rather than the $10.00 fee prescribed by law. In addition, the Commission found that the inspections were being performed at space shared by Tech Auto Sales, the dealership owned by Sal Esposito and that his wife actually conducted the inspections on vehicles that his dealership owned. Each of these actions constituted a significant breach of the conflict of interest laws.
Lombardi and Whiting, apparently the only two people unable to detect the breach of state law, were absolutely furious at the accusations. Lombardi called Esposito and “filled him in. I told him that Kristen Catanzaro was there and he says, 'When is this woman going to leave me alone?” Lombardi said in an interview with Breeze reporter Joe LaPlante. Lombardi, who told LaPlante that he “asked for the hearing to bring this to a head,” apparently accomplished his objective. He so infuriated Esposito, who blamed Catanzaro for filing the complaint that prompted the hearing, that he drove to Catanzaro's Fruit and Produce business located at 1541 Mineral Spring Avenue, and parked, according to Catanzaro, so as to block the councilwoman's car in the parking lot. He “searched me out,” Catanzaro told the Breeze reporter, “and started the altercation.” He accused and threatened her. She was incredulous and naturally afraid. She called the police and filed assault charges against Esposito.
Whiting said the police report was without merit and that “what we apparently have is an alleged heated argument between one or two parties that does not rise to the level of a crime.” He added that the “assessment is based upon the judgment of the seasoned personnel who conducted the investigation.” Whiting must have sensed that his statement would be met with skepticism because he added that as an added precaution he was going to send the case to the town's legal counsel for review.
Normally I would find it difficult to fathom a police chief’s dismissal of a complaint by a councilwoman alleging that someone had threatened her in public. How does one conclude that the complaint was political, and consequently without merit, prior to conducting an investigation that would include interviews of the perspective witnesses? Yet, I can’t say that I was surprised by such a move having already witnessed Chief Whiting’s blind support of Lombardi’s policies before the Council, including public statements to the Council suggesting that he condoned illegal actions taken by the mayor. “The chief is simply corrupt,” I thought to myself as I silently wondered if he would ever be called to task for his misdeeds.
The entire incident indicated to me that Lombardi not only lost political control of the town but that he is an active participant in the erosion of the behavior and actions of his administration officials and contractors as well.
On Tuesday May 17th, the VIN station drama found its way into the White Georgian marble halls of the State Capital. Earlier in the year several Town Council members drafted legislation that was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio. The legislation clarified the alleged ambiguity in the state law that requires VIN inspections to be performed by the local police chiefs or their designees in the departments. On the night of May 17th the legislation was slated for hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Councilors Kristen Catanzaro, John Lynch and Dino Autiello were present as was Mayor Lombardi and Chief Whiting. Catanzaro explained the necessity for the legislation while Mayor Lombardi and Chief Whiting persisted in their defense of the contracted service. The Committee seemed unmoved and, when Catanzaro accused Lombardi of lying to the Committee regarding the outcome of the recent meeting before DMV's Dealer License and Hearing Board, the Committee decided to have its own attorney attempt to confirm the veracity of the mayor's statements.
The Cream Rises to the Top
While the Esposito VIN station drama was playing out from the police department to the State House, ardent Lombardi Council supporter Joe Giammarco seemed to have a meltdown of his own in the town Council chambers.
Giammarco's political problems began almost before his political career did. Shortly after his November 2008 election, but before his January 2009 inauguration, Giammarco was “patrolling” his neighborhood during a snowstorm on the prowl for signs of trouble. He had apparently been drinking and found himself in verbal altercations with residents who failed to remove their cars from their on-street parking spots during the parking ban. According to a resident who complained to town police, an obviously inebriated Giammarco identified himself as a councilman and threatened to have the man's car towed if he did not move it immediately. The frightened senior citizen called the police. They responded by following a swerving vehicle, driven by Giammarco, as it maneuvered down Mineral Spring Avenue in a westerly direction. The license plate was obstructed (a violation of R.I. General Law), but the car fit the description of the subject vehicle identified in the phoned-in complaint. The police officer flashed his swirling blue and red lights and sounded the siren causing the driver of the errant car to stop. As the officer approached the vehicle, Giammarco staggered from the driver’s seat exuding an obvious odor of liquor according to the police report. The police officer administered a field sobriety test, which Giammarco failed miserably. He was arrested and charged with DUI. While at the police station, Giammarco asked to make a phone call from his cell phone. A later check of the phone indicated that the number called belonged to the mayor. According to an account by the arresting officer, Giammarco explained his situation to the mayor and asked for help.
In the ensuing days, Giammarco procured the legal services of John Harwood, a former Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives with powerful connections both inside and outside of the courtroom. Ultimately the case was dismissed when the carefully crafted defense argument, that there was no probable cause for the police to stop Giammarco in the first place, found merit with the judge. Many observers believed that Lombardi had used his political clout however to save his hand picked Council candidate from certain conviction and partook of some much needed damage control in the process.
In May 2011, just two and a half years later, Giammarco was in political hot water again. This time there was no denying the facts as the entire episode was captured on video and audiotape. The incident occurred at the regularly scheduled monthly meeting of the Town Council during a debate about what action should be taken on a citizen's request to have resident only parking signs removed from the street in front of her home. The resident’s husband, who was now deceased, had requested the signs some four years earlier because patrons of a neighboring business establishment parked in front of his house preventing the homeowner’s family from parking there. But now the parking issues were resolved and the woman was selling her home to a Nigerian family. In a moment of incredibly poor judgment, Giammarco, upon learning of the buyer’s nationality, suggested to the homeowner that the Nigerian family might want to keep the signs up because “those people usually move in with 35 kids.” The racism oozing from that statement was not lost on the audience that reacted with stunned silence. The petitioning homeowner remarked, “That was a very racist thing to say.” The following day she went to the Town Clerk’s office to register a formal complaint.
The complaint was buried prior to any hearings and the entire episode subsided with little fanfare. Lombardi was never asked if he condoned the comments of his most loyal and enthusiastic Council supporter. Nor did Lombardi voluntarily offer his thoughts on the apparent racist sentiments of his Council ally.
The local chapter of the NAACP, and a local Nigerian group were not content to sweep the incident under the rug and called for an apology. Both Giammarco and Lombardi ignored those calls. Despite the clear and convincing evidence of audio and videotape, Giammarco insisted that he was not referring to the number of children Nigerians have but rather the number of cars that they have. Lost on the Councilman is the fact that either reference is stereotypical and racist.
Pleas for Leniency
There was a great deal of speculation regarding the fate of the co-conspirators as the month of May approached. Local coffee shops and restaurants were abuzz with conversation regarding the potential sentences that the three disgraced former Council members and their cohorts might receive. Their friends and constituents wondered aloud what might become of them and what, if any, prison time they might receive.
The trio themselves didn’t know the answer to the totality of the punishment the court might impose and, through their respective lawyers, filed pre-sentence motions requesting leniency for a variety of inventive reasons.
Edward C. Roy, Jr., Burchfield’s lawyer for example, claimed that Burchfield had suffered enough. He lost his job as a liaison in the General Assembly and, for the past eight months, had been working in the Aristocrat Dental Lab. Roy argued that Burchfield’s “involvement in the charges in this indictment constitutes an aberration when compared with his lifelong history.” Roy also cited Burchfield’s five-year addiction to narcotic painkillers and his treatment for alcohol abuse as reasons why the judge should show him mercy. Finally, Roy referenced a letter written by Burchfield’s wife in which she told Lisi that her husband should be spared a lengthy prison term because he already punished himself.
William C. DiMitri, the attorney for Ray Douglas, discussed how Douglas graduated from LaSalle Academy and became an entrepreneur, learning the restaurant business by running a local Papa Gino’s Pizza restaurant and eventually purchased and operated bars and pubs in Johnston and in North Providence. Douglas ultimately became an insurance adjuster licensed by the R.I. Department of Business Regulation, his attorney noted. If given the maximum imprisonment allowed under sentencing guidelines, Douglas faced up to 145 years behind bars.
As the spring weather became hotter, so did the political tension in North Providence. All the speculation would soon come to an end as each convicted felon faced his own day of sentencing.
Days of Reckoning
While Mayor Charles Lombardi and members of his administration bobbed and weaved trying to avoid one political misstep after another, the participants in the North Providence corruption scandal were facing even more difficult times. For them, the spring and summer of 2011 had the potential to be one of the most gut-wrenching of their collective lives. Beginning in mid-May Judge Mary Lisi began handing down sentences to the co-conspirators, and, despite the various pleas for leniency, those sentences were harsh!
In their pre-sentencing reports, federal prosecutors asked Lisi to impose sentences of almost six years for John Zambarano and Raymond Douglas III, about double what the two had requested, while suggesting 5 ½ years for Joseph Burchfield. Although the maximum sentence that each faced exceeded 100 years, no one following the cases expected that kind of sentence to be imposed.
The first to encounter the judge on May 16th however was not a former councilman, but rather middleman/bag man Edward Imondi. With little fanfare, Lisi sentenced him to 12 months and 1 day in a federal prison to be followed by 12 months of home confinement with electronic monitoring to be followed again by 3 years of supervised probation. The sentence was less than the 30 months of prison requested by prosecutors and 15 months below the lowest sentencing guideline. “You got a gift today,” Lisi told him after citing his health, age, acceptance of responsibility and lack of criminal record as the reasons for the low sentence, later saying that the sentence was sufficient to “send a message to the other middlemen, to the other bag men, that if you do this, if you follow through, you will lose your liberty.” Lisi set a date of June 27th for Imondi to report to prison.
The 74-year old manager of the Cadillac Lounge strip club, who delivered the bribe money to Burchfield and Douglas from the club’s parking lot, was stoic upon exiting the courthouse. In response to a reporter's question Imondi said, “No. I didn't feel I was a bagman. Whatever they call me I have to agree with. I agreed with it, you know. I just thought she (Judge Lisi) was very, very fair – and I was told she would be very fair, and I appreciate that. [It was] My duty to apologize if I did any wrongdoing.
When Joe Burchfield took his turn before the judge a few moments later he had good reason to be optimistic considering the leniency shown to Imondi. His family filled the courtroom, the exact type of family support the judge typically likes to see in a person standing before her for sentencing.
As some said silent prayers and feigned strength in front of their disgraced relative, Burchfield stood in silence as his attorney cited his drug addiction and need for medical attention as justification in requesting a sentence of just two years imprisonment and three years of supervised release. But the slamming of Judge Lisi’s gavel against her oak sound block broke that silence, and any optimism Burchfield might have had as he entered the courtroom was about to morph into disappointment.
The depth of his research into Burchfield's past was obvious as prosecutor Terrance P. Donnelly noted the irony of Burchfield's brief candidacy for the Senate seat once held by fellow North Providence convicted felon John A. Celona who served time in prison following his 2007 conviction for selling his votes in the state senate. Burchfield had promised a clean campaign for that seat in his 2004 announcement, but by 2009, the one-time clean government candidate was deeply involved in an extortion and bribery scheme. “We've got to send a stronger message,” Donnelly pleaded.
The once powerful Council president, who months earlier arrogantly strode into a Douglas Avenue fundraiser for Mayor Charles Lombardi while snapping his gum and defiantly waving to a jeering crowd of picketing firefighters, now stood humbled before the woman who held his future in her hands. Burchfield told Lisi that his actions were the result of his addiction to alcohol and narcotics. These things “clouded his judgment and opened the door to his involvement in seeking bribes as a councilman.” Lisi listened intently to Burchfield's tearful apology for bringing shame to his family, the court and his former constituents, and then said, “Your conduct strikes at the very heart of our democratic government. This defendant held a leadership position in what we now know was nothing more than a criminal organization. This defendant was president of the North Providence Town Council and, in that position, he and his co-conspirators ran a shakedown operation.” Burchfield could probably tell from Lisi’s tone that he was in trouble. Still, his family let out an audible gasp when Lisi sentenced Burchfield to a prison term of 5 ½ years to be followed by 3 years of supervised release. She then ordered him to pay a fine of $10,000 and to surrender to authorities on June 6th.
As he left the courthouse, Burchfield looked worn and tired. He whisked past reporters declining comment as he was ushered by family members into a waiting car.
Two hours later Douglas took his turn in the courtroom. His demeanor was consistent with his approach during his change of plea hearing when he issued a voice-cracking apology to his family and constituents for the shame he brought to the Town of North Providence. It represented a major departure from the arrogant attitude displayed by the councilman who initially refused to resign his seat while proclaiming his innocence, and later requested that he be allowed to participate in a South Carolina golf vacation with family and friends.
A humble Douglas now stood before Judge Lisi and again apologized to his family, constituents and the court for his actions. Lisi, however, was not moved reacting even more harshly than she had with Burchfield. Describing Douglas as a councilman by day and a sports bookmaker by night, Lisi said, in addition to helping to run a criminal organization, Douglas “threatened violence and, in fact, sent his thugs to his victim's home. That puts him, in my judgment, in a different category from his co-defendants.” She sentenced him to 78 months in a federal prison followed by 3 years of supervised release. She also ordered him to pay a $12,500 fine and to report to prison on June 27th. The 6½-year prison term was the maximum recommended by federal sentencing guidelines and represented the harshest sentence ever handed down in a Rhode Island court for such an offense.
Once outside the courthouse Douglas promptly returned to his former defiant self. “Unfortunately, the justice system failed today,” he told reporters as he briskly walked to his waiting car. When asked why he thought that, Douglas responded without breaking stride, “You were in court, you heard it.” Those words, U.S. Attorney Neronha said later, are “music to my ears. When they are obviously unhappy, [with the sentences handed down] that's a good sign.”
Following the day’s proceedings, reporters tracked down Mayor Lombardi at Town Hall and again asked his thoughts. Seemingly taking the high road he acknowledged that it had been difficult to run the town amidst the suspicions tainting Town Hall. “We just want to move on,” he said. But then, prompted by a reporter’s question regarding Lisi's comments about Burchfield as a “criminal leader,” Lombardi couldn't help himself and was quick to throw his former supporter under the proverbial bus. “What can I say? I can't totally disagree with the judge. She has her opinion. I respect that. Hopefully everyone gets the message you can't conduct business in that manner.”
John Zambarano had almost 24 hours to digest the punishments handed out to his co-conspirators and to speculate about his own fate. It probably wasn’t a very restful night as he contemplated the harsh sentences dished out earlier that day. Judge Lisi took the bench at about 9:00 the following morning with the humiliated former councilman standing before her. Zambarano's attorney, Thomas Briody, had previously requested that Lisi “balance a message of deterrence with some small measure of compassion,” because Zambarano had already suffered physical and mental health problems since his arrest. On this morning, Zambarano would apologize to the court, his former constituents and his family.
“I can't truly describe the shame and disgust that I feel... I have dishonored my family...and the residents of North Providence who have trusted me for 14 years.”
Judge Lisi apparently didn't feel that shame and disgust alone constituted a just punishment. In a stern voice she imparted some very harsh words to the former councilman. “It was clear that this defendant, in particular, was an enthusiastic participant who cared little for the people he swore to serve,” the judge intoned. She described Zambarano's crimes as “despicable,” and said, referring to the business owners who were forced to pay the bribes, “They paid a price. They didn't get a fair shake before that Town Council... The bottom line is you don't steal. You don't take bribes. You don't punish the applicants, who only have their business interests at heart, when they don't pay up.”
She then imposed a prison term of 71 months for bribery and extortion and another 71 months for plotting to defraud an insurance company. The two sentences are to run concurrently. In addition, Zambarano was ordered to serve 3 years of supervised release with mental health treatment. He was fined $2,500 for insurance fraud and ordered to report to prison on June 8th.
In addition to the hefty prison sentences, the former councilmen were each ordered to pay the government $46,000, the amount of bribe money collected in the two-year old corruption case. Additionally each was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine for municipal corruption.
Following his sentencing, Zambarano declined comment but his attorney said that the punishment was “very, very severe. My client understands how serious this event is. He accepts responsibility and is ready to go forward with his life.”
After the last of the four pleading co-conspirators was sentenced, the government held a press conference. Standing with FBI special agents Jim Pitcavage and Richard DesLauriers, as well as Assistant U.S. Attorneys, Terrance Donnelly and John McAdams, Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha noted that the sentences imposed by Judge Lisi are tougher than in previous corruption cases. He said,
“I think judge Lisi sent a very clear message – that the court views these cases as incredibly serious and I believe as the sentences get stiffer, the messages become stronger, and the incentives to engage in this type of conduct lessen. Greed is never good. It is particularly offensive when it manifests itself in those who hold the public trust...Mr. Burchfield, Mr. Douglas and Mr. Zambarano took an oath to serve the people of North Providence. Instead, to line their own pockets, they engaged in a scheme to victimize them, recruiting cohorts along the way...[The former councilmen] received stiff sentences, and those sentences are well deserved.”
Declining to get specific, Neronha said that the FBI investigation into corruption in North Providence town government continues. Richard DesLauriers, Special agent in charge of the Boston Field Office of the FBI, added, “Whenever honest and effective government administration is undermined by corrupt public officials, the FBI and its law enforcement partners will focus their efforts on those responsible for those actions.”
Neither U.S. Attorney Neronha nor defense attorney Briody fully realized the significance of the sentences imposed by Judge Lisi. In fact, the prison term doled out to Douglas was the highest ever handed down for white-collar political crime in Rhode Island's history. Providence Journal reporter W. Zachary Malinowski described the sentences imposed by Judge Lisi as “a series of historic penalties.”
In an article that appeared in the Sunday Journal on May 22, 2011, Malinowski reviewed some of the higher profiled white-collar crime cases in what he describes as “the rich annals of political corruption and chicanery in Rhode Island.” He reported that “the 78-month sentence imposed against Raymond L. Douglas III was the stiffest a public official had ever received in the state.” The jail terms imposed against Zambarano and Burchfield were very close to record sentences as well. Neronha admitted to Malinowski that he was not aware of the records during the sentencing but added, “that it sends a strong message that there's a high penalty to be paid for abusing the public's trust.”
The former record prison sentence for a R.I. white-collar political crime belonged to Superior Court Judge Antonio S. Almeida who, in 1992, pleaded guilty to soliciting and accepting $45,100 in bribes from attorney Thomas C. Hutton. The consideration for the bribe money included favorable judicial decisions and court appointments. After serving just two years of his six year sentence, however, Almeida was paroled and completed his sentence on home confinement.
In 1991, Brian J. Sarault, the mayor of Pawtucket, pleaded guilty to extorting city contractors and accepting kickbacks of over $250,000 from nine city vendors. In all, four other city officials and seven contractors pleaded guilty in that corruption probe. Sarault was imprisoned for 5 ½ years for racketeering.
Former Governor Edward D. DiPrete pleaded guilty in 1998 to 18 felony counts of racketeering, extortion and bribery for crimes that he committed while in office in the 1980's. While he was the first governor to be convicted and jailed for crimes, he ended up serving only one year in the Adult Correctional Institution as the result of a plea agreement with the Attorney General. Ironically, the sentence was served in the City of Cranston where DiPrete began his political career.
In 2002 popular Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, Jr. was convicted of one count of racketeering conspiracy in Operation Plunder Dome and sentenced to 64 months in federal prison. Also going to prison as a result of their actions in the same corruption probe of Providence City Hall was one of Cianci’s top tax officials, Joseph A. Pannone. He was convicted of soliciting and accepting bribes and sentenced to serve five years. Frank E. Corrente, Cianci's Director of Administration, was ordered to serve 56 months for his part in the conspiracy.
North Providence State Senator John A. Celona, the prime target in Operation Dollar Bill, an FBI probe into political corruption in the R.I. State House, was indicted in 2004 for selling his honest services. His guilty plea and ultimate cooperation agreement with the U.S. Attorney resulted in a reduced federal prison term of 30 months. Ironically, it was the senate seat held by Celona that Burchfield sought prompting the prosecutors to compare the two at Burchfield’s sentencing.
Another State House politician ensnared in the Dollar Bill Probe was former House Majority Leader Gerard M. Martineau of Woonsocket. He pleaded guilty in 2007 to selling his honest services and was given a sentence of 37 months in federal prison.
Many other Rhode Island officials were convicted of crimes and served lesser sentences, but these are some of the more recent, higher profile cases. It is clear from this review that the sentences handed down in the North Providence Corruption Probe were among the highest in State history. The case also established a modern state record for the most elected and former elected officials to be imprisoned in a single corruption investigation. Neronha said he hopes that the punishment sends a strong message to other elected officials thinking about engaging in similar corrupt activities. He told Providence Journal reporter Zachary Malinowski “arrogance, greed and a lust for power is a dangerous mix that some politicians can’t seem to avoid.”
Ciresi Faces the Judge and Learns His Fate
While each of the four men sentenced were headed off to prison, attorney/middleman/bag man, Bob Ciresi, was waiting to learn his own fate. Ciresi was granted a postponement from the originally scheduled sentencing date of July 28th after lawyer Cicilline filed a motion in which he said he needed more time to complete his arguments and memorandum of sentencing. Now Ciresi’s time had finally arrived just before noon on Wednesday August 3rd.
Appearing frail and tired, Ciresi took his turn before Judge Lisi. His attorney had suggested that Ciresi be given home confinement as a result of his advanced age - “already 2.5 years beyond his due date,” according to Cicillini, - and his various infirmities that include high blood pressure, gout and acid reflux. Cicillini also cited his client’s limited role in the corruption scandal, and the impending loss of his law license as other reasons for requesting a relatively minor sentence. In court he described Ciresi as “a broke man” who has only $16,000 in the bank and a small bathhouse at the Bonnet Shores Beach Club. Cicillini questioned how Ciresi would be able to provide for his family’s needs if he is imprisoned.
A feeble-looking Ciresi stood to face Judge Mary Lisi. With his family looking on, Ciresi’s hands shook as he apologized to his family for all he put them through. “I’m deeply sorry. I’d like to thank friends and family… for their letters and words of encouragement,” he said tearfully. His “hands shook” as “he apologized to his family for humiliating them” and also told Lisi that her handling of the trial was “fair and just.” Through it all, though, Ciresi refused to acknowledge his role in the conspiracy and continued to proclaim his innocence, at one point peppering Judge Lisi on his inability to cross-examine John Zambarano whose tape-recorded conversations were the basis of the case against him. During the trial, Cicillini had argued, to no avail, that he had the legal right to cross-examine Zambarano on the stand. The Judge, however, had agreed with Assistant U.S. Attorney Terrance Donnelly saying, “The tapes speak for themselves.”
On this day Assistant U.S. Attorney Donnelly argued that Ciresi’s role was anything but minor and suggested a prison term of 97 months. Sentencing Ciresi to home confinement as suggested by Mr. Cicillini would “make a mockery of the law,” Donnelly noted.
Judge Lisi agreed that Ciresi’s role in the scheme was significant exclaiming, “Sadly, Mr. Ciresi, I’m going to sentence you to prison today.” Then, turning her attention to the entire court, she continued, This defendant before me elected to be a corrupt person… The consequences have to be harsh…to fully address the damage that’s done to our society.” She noted that Ciresi “ventured out late at night during the winter of 2009 to deliver at least $25,000 in bribe money to Councilman John A. Zambarano in the parking lot of a Cranston restaurant.” She reminded Ciresi that he also helped orchestrate another bribery scheme the following year on a different project. Lisi agreed with Donnelly’s assertion that during each of these transactions Ciresi abused his position of trust. “Abuse of trust,” Donnelly had argued, “is an inherent element of public bribery.” Judge Lisi pointed out that in each case, Ciresi allowed bribe money to be paid by his own clients and accepted some of the illicit cash while directing the conspiracies. Lisi continued, “I remember Mr. Ciresi when I was a young lawyer. He was someone whom young lawyers looked up to. It is true that in his life he has done much good.” But Lisi refused to let her personal feelings toward a younger Ciresi interfere with her job at hand. She apparently wasn’t buying into the age and illness theories either, agreeing with the prosecution that they have medications for high blood pressure and acid reflux in the federal prison system.
Considering his advanced age of 78, the judge imposed a prison sentence of 63 months, the lowest amount she could impose under the federal sentencing guidelines. Looking equally saddened and annoyed, she ordered Ciresi to report to prison on August 31st.
As he left the courthouse, an obviously distraught and dejected Ciresi refused to comment on the day’s proceedings. He hurried off to the waiting Toyota convertible; the same one he allegedly used to deliver the bribe money to Zambarano over 2 years ago. As Ciresi adjusted himself in the vehicle, Cicillini told reporters that he was confident that Ciresi’s appeal would be successful. Despite Cicillini’s own personal feelings, Lisi refused to allow Ciresi to remain free on bail pending the outcome of the appellate process.
In a prepared statement U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha noted “The sentence imposed by Judge Lisi today is an appropriate sentence that sends the right message. Going forward, as long as I am the U.S. Attorney, we will continue to recommend sentences like this one for those who choose to violate the public trust by engaging in corrupt activity.”
Less than two days later, Judge Lisi suspended Ciresi’s license to practice law in the federal court system, an action that Ciresi did not object to. When asked, David Curtin, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel for the Rhode Island State Courts said that Ciresi would soon be facing similar sanctions in the state court as well. Disbarment however, according to Curtin, would be on hold pending the outcome of Ciresi’s appeal in federal court.
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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