PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Woonsocket is canceling a controversial $1.1 million land deal after the mayor’s unilateral decision to buy the property from a former business associate drew the ire of local officials who argued she had violated city law.
Woonsocket city solicitor Michael Lepizzera is in the process of reversing Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt’s deal with R&K Building Corp., a real estate holding company owned by Raymond Bourque, which had been paid the $1.1 million for five acres of vacant land off Mendon Road.
Target 12 first revealed the deal’s existence last Wednesday, sparking public scrutiny of Baldelli-Hunt’s decision to enter into the agreement without City Council approval. When asked whether she’d ever done personal business with Bourque in the past, Baldelli-Hunt said, “nothing comes to mind.”
However, a Target 12 investigation this week revealed the mayor had listed Bourque as her employer on ethics documents filed with the state in 2011, and also borrowed $182,000 from him in 2011.
After learning about the deal from a published list of real estate transactions, city councilors lambasted the purchase, saying it violated a city charter provision requiring all transactions above $100,000 to first receive council approval.
The mayor had told Target 12 she planned to build affordable housing on the land, most recently valued at just less than $200,000, which she purchased using federal funds.
The City Council held a special meeting Thursday to discuss the situation, where Lepizzera announced he’d asked for and received a $1.1 million check from Bourque’s attorney, and that he was in the process of reversing the deal. He is seeking council approval to transfer the land back to Bourque, who he said has agreed to reverse the deal.
“I’ve taken steps to unwind this transaction,” Lepizzera told councilors.
Baldelli-Hunt didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Friday. Bourque has not responded to multiple requests for comment over the past week. An attorney representing him in the deal did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Baldelli-Hunt entered into the purchase-and-sale agreement with Bourque in April, and the seven-figure deal was finalized on Oct. 6. Councilors and Leppizera were not informed about the deal until it came out publicly, Target 12 has confirmed. Baldelli-Hunt — who used a private land attorney to close the deal — directed Leppizera to determine whether there was a “misstep.”
The hubbub surrounding the Mendon Road deal has spurred local debate about whether the council should take any action against the mayor, who also may have run afoul of federal rules surrounding how she used funds in the deal.
The City Council — which voted last year to remove Baldelli-Hunt from office shortly before she was re-elected unopposed — has received what Leppizera described as a “plethora” of documents tied to the deal. Councilors are planning to discuss the issue again at a future meeting.
“This was undone very quickly as far as getting the money back,” Council President Christopher Beauchamp said at the meeting. “It wasn’t something we sat on, but it was something we had to wait until the solicitor did his due diligence.”
Councilman John Ward, who was one of three council members to vote for the mayor’s removal from office last year, said the decision to reverse the deal doesn’t absolve Baldelli-Hunt of the consequences if she violated the law.
“It in no way removes the responsibilities of the parties for not consulting with the solicitor, violating the charter, and not bringing it to the council for approval,” Ward told Target 12. “None of that has changed and all of our investigations will forward to determine culpability and to do the right thing for the taxpayers of the city.”
Kate Wilkinson and Kayla Fish contributed to this report.