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Friday, June 1, 2012

Developments in DiBello v. Charlestown

Town Council member’s lawsuit against the Town takes some new turns
By Will Collette

In the past couple of weeks, there has been some movement on the conspiracy lawsuit filed by Council member Lisa DiBello against the town of Charlestown and the “Charlestown Ten” - present and former town officials.

The lawsuit stems from the unanimous Town Council vote on May 10, 2010 to fire DiBello as Parks and Recreation Director on the recommendation of recently resigned Town Administrator William DiLibero.

DiBello then ran for and won a seat on the Town Council on the motto “Because She Cares.” She promised  she did not intend to seek revenge for her firing. But only weeks after her election, DiBello filed an administrative complaint against the town and the individual officials. She alleges they engaged in a five-year conspiracy against her that culminated in her wrongful discharge.

That administrative complaint was converted into a civil lawsuit. DiBello offered to settle her claims for either $1.5 million cash, or $500,000 (plus costs) and her old job back.

Despite DiBello’s claim that she needed to settle her case because she was nearly destitute and in danger of losing her home, there was no action in the case for almost two months while all eyes were focused on the CCA’s “Kill Bill” campaign to oust DiBello’s arch-enemy Bill DiLibero as Town Administrator.

The “Kill Bill” campaign hinged on a ruling from the RI Ethics Commission. The question before the Commission was whether DiBello could vote on DiLibero’s fate even though he was the one who fired her and was a central figure in her conspiracy lawsuit against Charlestown.

Remarkably, the Ethics Commission gave DiBello the green light to participate in DiLibero’s inquisition and execution, although the basis for their decision was narrowly drawn and very specifically focused on that one matter.

For the first time, you can read the Ethics Commission decision for yourself and draw your own judgments about what it means and whether it was a sound decision. Click here

The Town of Charlestown has apparently hired new Counsel to represent the town and most of the defendants in the case.

If you click here, you can read the Stipulation of Acceptance that shows the town’s counsel on this case is Michael DeSisto, a Providence attorney. His Martindale profile lists his practice areas as real estate, civil and commercial litigation.

However, DeSisto is not representing ALL of the “Charlestown Ten” DiBello defendants. He is listed as representing Acting Town Administrator and Treasurer Pat Anderson, former Town Administrator Bill DiLibero, soon-to-be-retired Chief of Police Jack Shippee, present Town Council members Marge Frank and Gregg Avedisian, former Town Council members Candi Dunn, Forrester Safford and Richard Hosp and Town GIS specialist Steve McCandless.

The only member of the Charlestown Ten not represented by DeSisto is former Town Administrator and present Budget Commission chair Richard Sartor. Of all the members of the Charlestown Ten, Sartor’s role appears to be the most crucial in DiBello’s conspiracy scenario.

Richard Sartor - going his own way?
 DiBello served a summons on Sartor at his home on May 15 to respond to this amended complaint. We’ll see if new records show who is now representing Sartor.

Charlestown is obligated by law to “indemnify” town officials who face legal actions arising from their official acts. Since lawsuits are a way of life, no one would want to work for the town or run for public office if they weren’t covered. However, it is not clear whether the town will be obligated to pay for private counsel for Sartor, should he choose different counsel than Michael DeSisto.

According to DiBello’s complaint, the conspiracy began when DiBello reported hearing a raunchy conversation in 2007 between Sartor, who was then Town Administrator, and another male Town Hall staff person.

DiBello’s complaint then describes how this led to months of trouble. Then, she claims, a particularly sinister conspiracy was hatched by Sartor and then Hopkinton Town Administrator Bill DiLibero. According to DiBello’s court filings, Sartor offered to line DiLibero up with the then-vacant Charlestown Town Administrator job, which paid more money, if DiLibero promised to do whatever it took to kick DiBello out of her job.

Members of the executive search committee that ultimately recommended DiLibero’s hiring say they find this conspiracy theory to be far-fetched. Even if true, it would not have affected their deliberations and their choice.

DiBello recently filed a new “First Amended Complaint” with the court – click here to read it in its entirety. It adds no new charges but cleans up some misspellings in the original version.

But this “amended” version misses some other errors. For example, in the the very first statement DiBello claims she “worked as the Director of Parks and Recreation for the Town of Charlestown, Rhode Island for over 21 years as of the date that she was fired for retaliatory reasons on or about May 10, 2010.”

But DiBello gave the RI Ethics Commission five different hire dates in her mandatory annual ethics filings, none of which add up to more than 21 years. If you accept the dates she gave in her first and second ethics filings, she worked as P&R Director for just over 19 years . So either this latest court filing is wrong, or the ethics reports she filed under penalty of perjury were wrong.

Now that two of DiBello’s enemies among the Charlestown Ten – Town Administrator DiLibero and Chief Shippee – are off the board, there’s a lot of speculation afoot about what might happen next.

Of course, the biggest question is whether a settlement is afoot. While the departure of two of her enemies has been touted by DiBello’s allies as a big win for her, there are still lots of enemies left, not to mention the matter of the money.

If DiBello seriously wants to get her old job back, there are at least two obstacles. One is the state law that bars revolving-door employment. The law requires one year to pass before an elected official can get a job in the jurisdiction they represented.

Just as Deputy Dan Slattery is barred from getting the Town Administrator job he coveted until at one year as passed from the day he leaves office, so too DiBello is barred from going back to being Parks and Recreation Director for at least a year after she leaves the Town Council.

Though Lisa DiBello may think the RI Ethics Commission is willing to bend the law to accommodate her because they ruled in her favor on the DiLibero discipline vote, the Ethics Commission decision was, in fact, very narrowly draw, However, it was more than enough to allow DiBello to strike the killing blow against DiLibero.

The second problem is that the job she wants is currently filled by Jay Primiano. As much as she, and her CCA allies, would like to get rid of Primiano – especially if it ensures DiBello’s continued loyalty to the CCA agenda – how much stomach does the CCA have for another public fight over the purge of a town official?

Since we are only weeks away from the June 27 deadline for candidate declarations, DiBello will also have to decide if she intends to run for re-election. With a record dominated by turmoil, ethics questions and broken campaign promises, DiBello would go before the voters as the only known Town Council member in Rhode Island history to be actively suing the town she claims to represent.