CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – Mayor Allan Fung broke his silence Wednesday and apologized to city residents after a scathing Rhode Island State Police report harshly criticized the Cranston Police Department and his oversight of it.
“I want to apologize, apologize to the residents of Cranston,” Fung said after calling reporters to City Hall. “I recognize I’m not perfect. But the measure of a man is not the mistakes he’s made in the past but how he grows from them, and I’m growing.”
Fung, a Republican now in his third term, is up for re-election in 2016 after losing last year’s race for governor. On Wednesday he ruled out resigning and said he is “almost confident” that he will seek another term as mayor next year.
“I love this job,” he said.
The highly critical 182-page report – commissioned by Fung last year and released Monday by State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell – argued that “most of the [Cranston Police] Department’s troubles can be attributed to the poor leadership by the Department’s top officers, political interference and influence by Mayor Fung and members of his administration.”
Fung walked a fine line in his comments at the hourlong news conference, acknowledging he’s made mistakes overseeing the police while defending his motivations. He repeatedly thanked state police investigators for completing the report yet took issue with their suggestions that he protected rogue police officers for political reasons, insisting he’d been “misled” by his former police chief.
Still, Fung said, “Hindsight is always 20/20, and after reading the report, I wish some things were done differently.”
The complicated saga that led to Wednesday’s apology dates back to late 2013, when Cranston police issued an unprecedented blitz of parking tickets in the wards of two city councilors who’d just voted against a new police union contract. It eventually came to light that the ticketing was ordered by Capt. Stephen Antonucci, who was then serving as both the union’s president and a member of the police department’s command staff.
Fung faced the toughest questions over how he’s handled Antonucci, a political ally.
The report said Fung – then a candidate for governor – publicly called for Antonucci to be disciplined, then privately agreed to bring him back on the force with no demotion in rank. The report said Fung hid the deal from state police leaders, who were overseeing the Cranston police department at the time at Fung’s request, until just after he lost last November’s election.
“I made it clear to Mayor Fung that it was very transparent to me why he waited until the election was over to reveal this,” O’Donnell, the state police colonel, said in the report. “I felt this was an attempt by Mayor Fung to avoid any public scrutiny associated with this private agreement during the election cycle.”
Fung rejected the idea that he went out of his way to protect Antonucci from facing the music. He said he wanted to give Antonucci his job back because it would save taxpayers money by avoiding a long, costly legal battle with the disgraced captain, and said he was frustrated when new Police Chief Michael Winquist – a former top state police official, who wanted Antonucci terminated – appeared not to listen to his concerns.
“I always try to find the most cost-effective way to put those matters before me to a close, thus saving the Cranston taxpayers as much money as possible,” Fung said. He suggested he was hamstrung in part by the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a state law that makes it harder for communities to discipline officers, and said that law needs to be amended.
Asked how the private deal with Antonucci came together, Fung said: “I spoke with him and I said that I would try to get him back to the department to try to resolve this matter. In hindsight I should have, like I said before, talked to Colonel Winquist first and got his input, and that’s what led to the disagreement that we had.”
The city of Cranston recently reached a settlement with Antonucci that calls for him to retire next year. Fung argued the former police captain has suffered “severe consequences.”
Fung also faced a host of questions about former Police Chief Marco Palombo, whom Fung appointed shortly after taking office in 2009.
The state police report catalogued a long list of questionable actions by Palombo, from mistreating subordinates to threatening and putting under surveillance an executive at a private company.
Fung said he regretted not doing more to rein in the chief, who stepped down last year. “I was too trusting of Colonel Palombo,” he said.
“I placed that trust in Colonel Palombo and later found out that he had let me down as I reviewed this report,” Fung said. “Seeing the events as outlined in the assessment, I realize that he misled me, and in doing so jeopardized the credibility of our entire department.”
Shortly afterwards, Palombo fired back at Fung.
“I never misled the mayor. Never,” Palombo said in a statement. “Nor did I mislead anyone else.”
“I did what I said I would do as police chief, whether the decisions I made were popular or not,” he continued. “I was never influenced by politics in making my determinations of what was right for our department. I’m not perfect – in fact, I am far from being perfect, but I’m honest. I believe that when all of the facts come out, and are viewed by fair-minded decision-makers, these will be the findings.”
Asked why he didn’t discipline Palombo when he found out how the chief had treated the tech executive, who compared it to organized crime, Fung said: “I think I probably should have – looking back now – taken more action than just blasting him.”
Another section of the report detailed how in 2013 Fung got the City Council to award a tax-free accidental disability pension to former Captain Thomas Dodd, clearing the way for Antonucci to be promoted to captain – even though Dodd himself objected to the request. The report said Dodd’s disability “has never been thoroughly medically diagnosed,” which city officials ignored.
Fung gave a complicated defense about why he pushed the pension for Dodd, saying he had enough medical information to make the decision at the time and was relying on advice from lawyers.
“It wasn’t anything unusual,” Fung said.
Fung argued the police department is now on the road to recovery under Winquist, which he attributed to the “decisive action” he took starting last year. “There is a smooth chain of command now,” he said.
The news conference came the same day the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union called on the Cranston City Council to order a fuller probe of the police misconduct there, saying in a letter that the misconduct outlined by the state police is likely the “tip of an iceberg.” Separately, Fung said he is willing to appear before the council to answer questions about the police issues.Ted Nesi (email@example.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesiTim White contributed to this report.