Complaints against Smithfield officials mounting

Complaints against Smithfield officials mounting

Despres pulls property off the market in response

SMITHFIELD – Smithfield has new leaders in Town Council President Paul Santucci and Town Manager Randy Rossi, but accusations of questionable dealings and ethics violations continue to plague town officials.

Outspoken local businessman Jackson Despres compiled all of his previous complaints with the council, ranging from alleged ethics violations to inaction, and is also presenting new concerns suggesting excessive billing and breaches of contract.

In response to these allegations, Despres also made an announcement.

“Unfortunately, the Route 7 and 116 corridor is the key to the future in this town, and I own the largest piece, the controlling piece, and I just took it off the market,” Despres said, referring to his sprawling 81 acres in the economic growth overlay district.

Council President Santucci said he had reached out to Despres following the council meeting last Tuesday, Sept. 5, and requested a copy of the businessman’s presentation.

“I will be looking into the issues,” Santucci said.

Rossi said that he would be fact-checking the presentation and take concerns from Despres into consideration.

“Every taxpayer has a voice,” Rossi said.

Councilor Suzy Alba took a tougher position, telling The Valley Breeze & Observer, “I will be calling for the immediate removal of Edmund Alves, our solicitor, at the next council meeting.”

Some of the complaints have been discussed before. In a presentation before the council, Despres raised two new concerns:

Alves accused of overcharging Smithfield for tax sale paperwork

At the Sept. 5 meeting, Despres unveiled previously undisclosed information regarding Smithfield’s tax sales from 2014 to 2017.

Files obtained from Rossi show that the tax sale process in 2015 and 2016 was conducted by the Finance Department internally to save the town money. In these years, a single clerk completed the entire tax sale process.

The only item for which an outside vendor was used was the actual title exam, which was conducted by Rhode Island Title Services and billed directly to the town of Smithfield at $5,450 and $5,600. In 2015 and 2016, total expenses did not exceed $11,000.

In 2014 and 2017, total tax sale expenses were $47,000 and $34,000, respectively. Paperwork provided by Despres shows Alves charged Smithfield a flat fee for each title search in the amount of $285, without written permission from the Town Council.

Questionable actions involving Maxine Cavanagh, Alves, and the Land Trust

At the Sept. 5 meeting, Despres also stated that after submitting a public records request for multiple Land Trust records, he discovered that several records were being held at the home of Conservation Commission Chairwoman Barbara Rich.

One such file includes a September 2009 purchase and sale agreement for Council member Cavanagh’s Log Road property, signed by Rich.

The document provides for the sale of the development rights in the form of a conservation easement. It also contains a commitment for title insurance issued by Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company.

Both documents state that Cavanagh was expected to pay all unpaid municipal charges and open mortgages.

The file also includes a letter written by Alves on Dec. 9, 2009 acknowledging the mortgages and stating, “The Purchase and Sale Agreement provides that the deed to the development rights be free of encumbrances except those which are acceptable to the purchaser. Would you please advise me as to the Land Trust’s position regarding these two encumbrances.”

But records show that before the mortgages were settled, Alves disbursed $388,440 directly to Cavanagh, who paid one mortgage on Jan. 21, 2010, and the second on April 19, 2010.

The four previous complaints brought up again by Despres are as follows:

Councilwoman subject of ethics complaint

An ethics complaint from Despres alleged that Councilor Cavanagh violated ethics rules when she failed to recuse herself from a Dec. 5, 2016 vote to appoint attorney Edmund Alves as town solicitor and his legal practice, Blish and Cavanagh, as legal representation for the town.

Alves owns the legal practice with Cavanagh’s husband’s first cousin, Joseph Cavanagh.

The complaint, in essence, claimed Cavanagh violated the nepotism provision of the Rhode Island ethics rules on these five occasions. However, since the statute of limitations is limited to six years, only the last two violations, Nov. 13, 2012, and Dec. 5, 2016, are referenced in the document.

The Rhode Island Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint in a unanimous vote on Sept. 12.

Conflict of interest allegations raised against solicitor

Despres also alleged Solicitor Alves had a potential conflict of interest in prosecuting former Town Council member Richard Poirier on pending housing violations, a case settled over the summer.

In a May 17 letter addressed to Judge William Poore, who presided over the case, Despres provides several reasons for why Alves should be removed from the case:

• Poirier voted to appoint Alves as solicitor seven times during his tenure on the Smithfield Town Council.

• Alves represented Poirier as a member of the Town Council and, in essence, the letter argues Poirier could be considered a former client of Alves and his firm Blish and Cavanagh.

• Members of Blish and Cavanagh have made financial contributions to the Smithfield Republican Party, which in turn supported the candidacy of Poirier. The attorney’s wife, Linda Alves, and attorney Joseph Cavanagh Jr. each made $1,000 maximum contributions to the Smithfield Republican Town Committee.

• In his position as solicitor, Alves helped draft a legal opinion granting Poirier, then Town Council vice president, a senior tax exemption and freeze on his real property.

Poirier ended up paying a fine in the case.

Alves accused of overcharging Ethics Commission

On May 18, Despres sent a letter to the Ethics Commission alleging Alves had been receiving excessive fees for his services.

Despres sent the commission and The Valley Breeze & Observer hundreds of copies of the solicitor’s billing statements, legal contracts, and letters of correspondence.

The documents show Alves entered into a contract with the Ethics Commission on March 30, 2010, which included the following certification clause: “The rate of compensation herein does not exceed the rate of compensation charged by the Contractor to his preferred public or private client.”

At the time, Alves agreed to an hourly rate of $175 per hour, plus miscellaneous expenses.

Meanwhile, copies of Smithfield monthly billing summaries from May 2006 through April 2017 show that Alves had been charging Smithfield $125 per hour.

Days after this information was sent to the commission, a May 26 closed-door executive session was scheduled for a “discussion of a personnel matter.”

Following this meeting, Alves announced he would not be seeking reappointment when his contract expired later that month, on June 30.

The commission has asked the Department of Administration for guidance in interpreting “the proper meaning and application of the certification clause.”

Council accused of mishandling Packaging & More billing

Despres has previously questioned the council’s handling of controversies surrounding Zoning Board member and Packaging & More owner Antonio Fonseca.

In a complaint filed by Karen Esposito on Dec. 23, 2015, she alleged Fonseca failed to disclose income he earned from his company’s sale of paper products to the town of Smithfield on his financial disclosure statements. The complaint further alleged that Fonseca’s contracts, or lack thereof, with the town violated the Rhode Island Code of Ethics because the contracts were not awarded through an open and public process.

Ultimately, when the report was presented and the matter was heard before the Ethics Commission on May 24, 2016, no probable cause was found and the complaint was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it can’t be re-filed.

In August, Fonseca, filed a complaint against the Rhode Island Ethics Commission in Providence County Superior Court challenging the idea that the commission had the right to release a report offering details on an investigation into his business practices.

“I strongly suspect Mr. Fonseca would not sue the commission if the investigative report was favorable,” Despres said.