Pawtucket not giving up pursuit of Sylvester's back taxes

Pawtucket not giving up pursuit of Sylvester's back taxes

Say ethics ruling in favor of chief makes no impact

PAWTUCKET - City officials are not giving up their bid to recoup as much as $25,000 in back car taxes from Frank Sylvester despite a ruling by the Rhode Island Ethics Commission last week that the Lime Rock fire chief did not violate ethics laws.

The ethics ruling "will not have an impact" on the city's case against Sylvester, according to Dylan Zelazo, spokesman for Mayor Donald Grebien.

The Rhode Island Ethics Commission last week decided to dismiss the case against Sylvester, who was accused of using his position in Lincoln to save money on his car taxes.

Prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to go forward with a case against Sylvester, according to Jason Gramitt, staff attorney for the Ethics Commission. Ultimately, said Gramitt, commission members decided, based on the recommendation of Prosecutor Kent Willever, that there was "a lack of evidence to establish that Chief Sylvester had knowingly and willfully" used his position to gain financially, requirements needed to prove that he violated the code of ethics.

"What we were left with was very vague statutory language and tax laws related to where you can register your vehicle," said Gramitt. "And Chief Sylvester seems to have received equally vague advice from the Department of Motor Vehicles."

Given the "totality" of the case, the vagueness of the laws combined with the fact that the Rhode Island State Police uncovered no criminal behavior following their 2011 investigation, commissioners found "insufficient evidence that he intentionally violated the law," said Gramitt.

Sylvester proposed a settlement in the case back on May 21, but the Ethics Commission rejected that proposal.

It was April of last year when the Ethics Commission found probable cause that Sylvester had violated state ethics laws by registering his cars at the Lime Rock Fire Department where he works instead of his Gates Street home in Pawtucket.

The complainant in the case, Lincoln resident John Cullen, was represented by Pawtucket attorney Mark McBurney.

"Rhode Island law requires you to register your cars from home, and DMV registration forms require you to list your residential address," said McBurney in a statement following last week's ethics decision. "One million Rhode Islanders have no difficulty complying with the law or understanding what the word 'residence' means.

Sylvester "registered his cars 61 times over 23 years from his work address instead of his residence, denying Pawtucket tens of thousands of dollars in tax revenue in the process," added McBurney. "Curiously, Mayor Grebien stubbornly retains Chief Sylvester on Pawtucket's Personnel Board, and continues to pay him. It is a win-win for Sylvester and a lose-lose for Pawtucket taxpayers, who seem to have no one representing their interests."

Daniel McKinnon, the Pawtucket attorney who represents Sylvester, told The Breeze that the ethics issue and the back tax question "are somewhat a fruit salad and somewhat a separate apple and a separate orange."

The Ethics Commission found that his client committed an "appropriate act" and "did not violate any ethical code," said McKinnon.

Does that mean Sylvester will be switching his registration back to the Lime Rock Fire Department?

"That question's argumentative and I'm not going to answer it," said McKinnon.

As for the Rhode Island State Police telling Sylvester to switch his registration to his Pawtucket home, said McKinnon, the attorney maintains that the order was "wrong" and that his client should not have complied. The fact that Sylvester chose to comply anyway, based on this being "the first authority" to tell him that what he was doing was wrong, shows "the character of this man," said McKinnon.

Rhode Island law states that a vehicle is taxed "where it is customarily kept or garaged," and does not say that it's taxed "where you live," said McKinnon.

"That's just the law; it's that simple," he said.

Pawtucket officials, "for whatever reason," believe that the town of Lincoln got Sylvester's money "inappropriately," said McKinnon, who is maintaining that his client "cannot be taxed twice."

Pawtucket officials have done nothing to recoup the taxes from Lincoln, added the attorney, leading him to file a third party complaint against Lincoln. That complaint basically says that Sylvester's people deny that the chief owes anything to Pawtucket, but "if we owe anything, Lincoln owes us," said McKinnon.

The ethics decision does impact the underlying case on back taxes "by establishing a rational basis to revisit the question of whether the money is owed or not," said McKinnon. In order for Pawtucket to prevail, officials there have the burden of establishing that the vehicles were "customarily kept or garaged" in Pawtucket, he said.

Mayor Don Grebien told The Breeze in May that city officials were still "aggressively pursuing" the "full value" of the car taxes that should have been paid to Pawtucket instead of to Lincoln.

The amount Sylvester paid to Lincoln during the years he registered his cars there was $14,045, a bill that would have been much higher in Pawtucket had his cars been properly registered there.

Pawtucket officials asked Lincoln leaders to pay them the $14,045 back in the fall of 2011, but when Lincoln Town Administrator T. Joseph Almond declined, they decided to pursue Sylvester himself for the money.