WOONSOCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – A week after Woonsocket’s mayor claimed she’d never done personal business with the developer at the center of a controversial city land deal, Target 12 has discovered she once listed the man as her employer and borrowed $182,000 from him.
In an interview with Target 12 last Wednesday, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt adamantly denied ever having a personal business relationship with Raymond Bourque, owner of R&K Building Corp. The question arose after she unilaterally spent $1.1 million of taxpayer money to buy five acres of vacant land from R&K, saying she planned to use the parcel for affordable housing.
The land, off Mendon Road, had been assessed at less than $200,000 last year, and no appraisal was done before the city bought the land. The revelation about the transaction has sparked outrage among some local officials, who argue the mayor violated city law, and raised questions about whether the transaction complied with federal rules.
Bourque is a well-known real estate owner in Woonsocket who’s done multiple deals with the city in recent years. When Target 12 asked Baldelli-Hunt if she’d ever done personal business with him, she said, “No.”
However, she then added the caveat that she’d been in real estate for years and didn’t remember every conversation she’s had with people along the way. But “nothing comes to mind,” she added.
However, a Target 12 review of hundreds of pages of land records and more than a decade of financial disclosures shows the mayor has disclosed doing non-city business with Bourque in the past.
In 2011, Baldelli-Hunt went so far as to name Bourque as her employer on state ethics forms. She said she served as a “real estate researcher and facilitator” for him, conducting “research for employer’s real estate interests.”
The details were included on the annual disclosure form that elected officials must file with the R.I. Ethics Commission, signed under the “pains and penalties of perjury.”
In April of the same year, Baldelli-Hunt and her husband borrowed $182,000 from Bourque, securing the loan with their Woonsocket home on Prospect Street, according to land records reviewed by Target 12. The couple paid off the loan a year later, in July 2012, the records show.
The loan from Bourque was not disclosed by Baldelli-Hunt on her 2011 or 2012 ethics forms, which caught the attention of Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John Marion, who’s been tracking Baldelli-Hunt’s political career since she served in the General Assembly prior to becoming mayor.
“WPRI’s reporting appears to show that Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, while serving in the state legislature, failed to properly disclose a loan she and husband received from a Woonsocket businessman,” Marion said. “Unfortunately, the Ethics Commission’s six-year statute of limitations means that apparent violation of the state’s Code of Ethics will go unpunished.”
Baldelli-Hunt did not respond to a phone call and text message Wednesday seeking additional comment regarding her past business ties to Bourque. The developer has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Woonsocket City Councilman John Ward, a vocal critic of the mayor, said Wednesday he was surprised Baldelli-Hunt didn’t acknowledge her personal ties to Bourque when questioned, saying their real estate dealings were “common knowledge” in the city.
“That points to one of the problems this council and the past council has had with the mayor,” Ward told Target 12. “We get answers that don’t match up with documents. We get answers that don’t really reflect reality.”
After elected to lead the city in 2013, Baldelli-Hunt maintained a working relationship with Bourque from the mayor’s office. In 2014, she announced a $9 million economic-development project in the city, naming Bourque as one of several expected investors.
In 2016, the city paid Bourque $100,000 for land to install pipes connecting Woonsocket and Cumberland water supplies, according to a report at the time in The Valley Breeze. Bourque said he planned to donate those proceeds back to the city for “charitable purposes.”
And in 2019, the Woonsocket Call reported Baldelli-Hunt proposed paying $1.2 million to Bourque’s daughter, Sue, for 54 acres of open space.
Then this past spring, Baldelli-Hunt had the city enter into a purchase-and-sale agreement with Bourque, steering $1.1 million in city-controlled federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to purchase Bourque’s five acres of vacant land off Mendon Road.
A plan reviewed by Target 12 shows the city expects to build 11 affordable homes on the land, which the mayor said would be sold to working families and older residents at federally set, below-market prices. If successful, she said last week, the recouped funds could be used to replicate to process elsewhere in the city.
“It’s not low-income housing — it’s affordable,” Baldelli-Hunt told Target 12. The homes might go to an older resident looking to downsize, she said, or a graduating nursing student who doesn’t have a ton of money but wants to become a homeowner.
“It’s in a desirable section of the city as well, so that makes it even more appealing,” she said. “We’re an urban city and some of the areas of the city are more desirable than others to people.”
Marion said that while she was a business association of Bourque’s in the past, there’s likely no conflict of interest under current law that she’s been doing business with him while in office.
“It could still be a conflict though if the transaction were based on a promise of future employment, or if the mayor’s ethics filings are incomplete, which they appear to have been in the past,” he added. “Even if she didn’t break the law, she doesn’t appear to be telling the truth.”
But her decision to buy the land on her own authority has raised the ire of some councilors. They argued she purchased the property without their knowledge or approval, potentially in violation of city law that requires all transactions above $100,000 to receive council approval.
If they’re correct, Baldelli-Hunt could run afoul of HUD regulations and be forced to replenish the $1.1 million, which she pulled from the agency’s HOME Investment Partnerships Program.
“The determination regarding whether the mayor had authority to commit and expend HOME funds for this project is a matter to be determined by the city under state and local law,” HUD spokesperson Christine Baumann told Target 12 this week.
“HUD does not make this determination,” she added. “However, if this use of HOME funds is found to violate state or local law, the city would be required to repay the funds to its local HOME account.”
Baldelli-Hunt has directed the city solicitor to determine whether there was a “misstep” in her decision to move forward with the deal without council approval.
The lack of an appraisal has also raised eyebrows. When Baldelli-Hunt’s administration proposed its $1.2 million land purchase from Sue Bourque in 2019, the city commissioned an appraisal suggesting the property’s market value was about twice as much.
Baldelli-Hunt defended the price tag for the Mendon Road land last week, saying it’s common in the current real estate market to purchase property for more than the assessed value.
HUD officials said an appraisal isn’t required to use HOME funds to purchase property, but Baumann said the city “should have informed the owner in writing of what it believed to be fair market value of the property.”
Target 12 has submitted a public records request for that document and the city solicitor had not found a responsive record as of Wednesday.
The City Council has now called a special meeting Thursday at 7 p.m. to discuss how the land deal came about. The discussion was initially supposed to happen behind closed doors in executive session, but Ward said he now wants at least some of it to happen publicly.
“I don’t want to start this in a closed meeting and keep the people of Woonsocket out of the information loop,” he said. “There’s been a lot of noise, emails, and text messages coming in from people, asking, ‘What’s going on?'”
Kate Wilkinson contributed to this report.