PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Former North Providence Fire Chief Steven Catanzaro said he testified before a statewide grand jury that indicted ex-Coventry Fire District Chief Paul Labbadia earlier this month and is cooperating with investigators.
In 2001 Catanzaro – then running the North Providence Fire Department – signed a letter sent to state retirement officials, listing Labbadia’s years of on-call service as a firefighter in that town. But Catanzaro said he never verified the dates listed in the letter.
“I signed many letters every day going into my office, I had a stack of letters like this,” Catanzaro said. “I think if you ask every administrator they don’t read everything that they sign.”
Catanzaro provided Target 12 with several copies of similar letters he signed on behalf of other firefighters.
At the time, Catanzaro claimed personnel at town hall had records that would verify how long someone worked as an on-call firefighter.
“I think the problem lies within the state retirement board,” Catanzaro said. “I don’t think they cross-reference, and they should be cross-referencing dates and times with the towns and cities they’re dealing with.”
In a letter to Labbadia’s attorney in March notifying him that the state was suspending his pension benefits, Frank Karpinski – the executive director of the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island (ERSRI) – said “with all information for service credit, ERSRI relies on the information provided by employers to be complete and valid.”
“I never verified the dates,” he said. “That wasn’t my job to do that.”
Last week Labbadia, 49, was indicted by a statewide grand jury and charged with three counts: two obtaining money under false pretenses and one filing a false document.
Investigators say he obtained $155,000 in retiree health benefits and $23,000 in cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) payments from the city of North Providence, as well as $45,000 in state pension payments.
Labbadia pleaded not guilty and Magistrate Judge Patricia Harwood released him on $25,000 personal recognizance and set a Nov. 16 pretrial conference.
Catanzaro said he is friends with Labbadia, but claims he has not talked to him about the pension situation, citing the ongoing legal case.
Rhode Island State Police Col. Steve O’Donnell said Catanzaro has been cleared of any criminal violations.
In March, state retirement officials demanded Labbadia repay the retirement system $51,711.65 in payments that officials say he shouldn’t have gotten.
The $57,711.65 was received over two periods: between when Labbadia retired from North Providence in 2007 and when he took over as chief in Coventry in February 2008, and then for 75 days annually while he served as chief from 2008 through earlier this year. (State law requires pension payments to be suspended for all but 75 days a year when the recipient gets a new job.)
North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi is also seeking payments totaling roughly $180,000 from Labbadia for retiree healthcare and cost of living payments.
At issue is credit toward a pension that Labbadia claimed for his years as an “on-call” firefighter in North Providence during the early 1980s.
Per state law, individuals can purchase one year of pension credit for every three years they worked on call.
Labbadia had been working as a full-time firefighter in North Providence for only 17 years when he filed to retire in 2007. Needing 20 years of service to qualify for a pension, he reported that he’d worked on call for 10 years starting in 1980; he got three years of pension credits in exchange.
In a Feb. 12 letter to state retirement officials, Lombardi said town records indicate Labbadia did not begin getting paid as an on-call firefighter until July 1982. The letter said there is no way Labbadia could have worked as an on-call firefighter in 1980 or 1981 because he would have been too young.
“The Town of North Providence rules and regulations both in print and by practice did not allow anyone to serve as a member of the Call System prior to the age of 16,” Lombardi wrote in the letter. “Mr. Labbadia turned 16 on January 22, 1982.”
The letter signed by Catanzaro said Labbadia started as an on-call firefighter in 1979.
Catanazaro – who has been in Lombardi’s cross hairs – said politics are motivating the mayor’s venom toward him. Catanzaro’s wife Kristen is the town council president there and has had an acrimonious relationship with the mayor’s office.
“What is he going to blame me for next, cracking the Liberty Bell?” Catanzaro said. “He’s got me out to be this bad guy.” Tim White( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @TimWhiteRI