PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A now-former employee of the Providence Water Supply Board claims in a lawsuit that she raised the red flag years ago about credit card fraud at the agency but was ignored, and ultimately lost her job because of it.
Charlene Oliver, whose suit says she was a purchasing agent at the public utility before she was “compelled to resign,” is claiming a violation of the Rhode Island Whistleblowers’ Protection Act.
The suit comes just over two months after Providence police arrested Providence Water purchasing supervisor Rebecca Lourenco, charging her with fraud for allegedly using the utility’s credit card to buy more than $13,000 worth of personal items.
But Oliver claims she reported multiple fraudulent uses of Providence Water’s corporate credit cards to her supervisors, years before Providence police opened an investigation in 2018.
Spokespeople for both the Providence Water Supply Board and the city of Providence declined to comment because of the ongoing litigation.
Oliver’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island, claims she first called Bank of America in 2015 to report fraudulent charges including sunglasses, cell phones and contact lenses on her Providence Water credit card. She asked the bank to cancel the card.
According to the suit, Oliver also notified her supervisor, purchasing manager Elizabeth Paquin. She claims Paquin told her: “Who are you to call BOA?”
The lawsuit says the fraudulent charges were never investigated by Providence Water. Oliver says she suspected multiple employees were using the credit card for personal use, not just Lourenco.
Providence Water is funded by ratepayers through their water bills.
Paquin did not respond to multiple requests for comment via phone and email. She is still the purchasing manager for Providence Water, according to a city spokesperson, and makes an annual salary of $82,923.
Asked if police are looking into employees other than Lourenco, a Providence police spokesperson said in an email, “The investigation is still ongoing.”
In one instance, Oliver’s suit claims an unnamed management-level employee bought a coat rack and other items from the Ann & Hope Outlet in May 2018 with the corporate credit card for his personal use. The suit says a month later, an employee bought a tea kettle from Sur La Table, also for personal use.
The suit says Oliver reported the incidents to Paquin and Lourenco, who was a purchasing supervisor before she resigned and was charged by police.
Oliver claims she reported Lourenco’s alleged fraud to supervisors starting in 2015. According to a police affidavit, the allegations were ultimately reported to police years later, in September 2018, by Paquin and Providence Water’s deputy general manager Peter Pallozi.
The police affidavit lists Oliver as one of the cardholders whose account was allegedly used by Lourenco to buy personal items. Paquin’s account was also used, according to the documents.
The police report says Lourenco self-reported what she described as an accidental charge on the utility’s credit card in August 2018, after which she was suspended from her job. Pallozzi directed Paquin to conduct an audit, which turned up dozens of questionable charges. That’s when the allegations were reported to police, according to the report.
Police said Lourenco made 101 fraudulent purchases in total, adding up to $13,806.12. The purchases included makeup, a mannequin head, paper towels, Nerf darts, a leather ottoman and a gazebo canopy.
Lourenco is also accused of creating phony purchase orders to make the transactions appear to be legitimate business of the Providence Water Supply Board.
Oliver claims that because she reported the alleged fraud, she was forced to resign from Providence Water and transfer to a lower-paying job within the city of Providence.
A city spokesperson said Oliver is now an assistant claims examiner and makes $46,161 per year. Her salary at Providence Water was $51,678.