Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Charlestown Council rejects contract renewal for Indian fighter

By a 3-2 vote, town council says no to Joe Larisa’s retainer agreement

By Will Collette

Attorney Joe Larisa (center) announcing RIGOP lawsuit to block sports
. The suit was thrown out. Photo by Steve Klamkin WPRO News
At the on-line December 14 Town Council meeting, the newly sworn-in Charlestown Council voted 3-2 to end 18 years of employment under retainer by attorney Joseph S. Larisa who has led Charlestown’s never ending war with the Narragansett Indian Tribe.

The issue was debated purely on the financial feasibility of Larisa’s business arrangement with the town rather than Larisa’s role as the leading figure fighting against the Tribe’s rights to self-determination.

The Council did not go into detail about the finances of the deal other than to act on Council President Deb Carney’s observation that Larisa’s cost-plus contract seemed too expensive.

Larisa has been charging the town $2050 every month, whether he does any work or not for an annual total of $24,600.

This “work” consists primarily of reading articles about Indian law and politics, especially related to issues rising from the 2009 Carcieri v. Salazar Supreme Court decision. I do pretty much the same thing myself using several “Google Alerts” that cost me nothing.

If Larisa has to do any actual lawyering, such as writing briefs, trial work or giving testimony at hearings, he charges Charlestown extra at the rate of $130 an hour.

Since the Council decision was based on the money, not the probity of Larisa’s work, let’s first take a closer look at the financial aspects of Larisa’s contract.

I have a revolving request with Charlestown Town Clerk Amy Weinreich for documents under the state open records law (Access to Public Records Act, a.k.a. APRA).

I added requests for Larisa’s invoices to the town in 2012 but Larisa didn't want those bills revealed. Here's what the town sent me:

To read about the fight to get the town to reveal how much Larisa gets paid, CLICK HERE.

It took the intervention of the Attorney General to lift the black-out and I have been monitoring his bills ever since.

I looked over the 13 most recent invoices the town has sent me that cover June 2019 through October 2020. Four months are missing from the collection: May, June and January 2020, and December 2019.

However, the 13 months in hand give us a good picture of what Larisa does for Charlestown.

Those 13 invoices list a total of 18.75 actual hours worked over the entire 13 months under the terms of the $2050 monthly retainer. That averages 1.4 hours of “work” per month, the equivalent of $1,464 per hour for mostly reading news clips.

Larisa also billed Charlestown for an additional 40 hours worked outside the retainer on actual cases billed at $130 an hour. His extra charges to the town totaled $7,163.25.

Larisa told Council members his billing rate of $130 represents a deep discount and is only made possible by his monthly retainer. Without the retainer, his hourly fees would be “extremely expensive.”

Council President Carney made a motion, passed unanimously, for Larisa to return with a proposal showing exactly how much he would charge by the hour without the retainer. He was told to submit the proposal for discussion at the Council’s January meeting.

The motion not to renew Larisa’s retainer was based on the votes of a Democrat (Deb Carney), a Republican (Grace Klinger) and a CCA-endorsed Councilor (Susan Cooper). It has been more than a decade since the Council has had such a diverse winning vote.

The other two CCA-endorsed members, Vice-President Cody Clarkin, a newcomer to the Council, and die-hard CCA holdover Bonnie Van Slyke, voted to renew Larisa’s retainer.

Only Van Slyke spoke to the merits of Larisa’s services, arguing that he has unique Rhode Island experience in Indian law and a long history with the Narragansett Tribe.

And that, to me, raises another reason why the Council made the right decision. It is certainly true that Larisa has a long history with the Tribe, a very troubling one.

Larisa noted that Charlestown is currently defending itself in two federal lawsuits against the Charlestown Police Department (CPD) brought by tribal leaders Bella Noka and Domingo Monroe. Both are civil rights cases charging CPD with discriminatory actions against them.

Nearly all of the nearly $7,200 in extra charges from Larisa involved his work on these cases.

I have researched Larisa’s background and qualifications extensively over the past several years and found no evidence that Larisa has any actual expertise in civil rights or police misconduct.

If you look below at the proposal letter Larisa gave the Town, you can see what he says his strengths are tribal sovereignty or the lack thereof, not civil rights or police misconduct:

In numerous previous articles, I have noted how Larisa interjects his conviction that the Narragansett Indian Tribe has no sovereign rights at every opportunity even when it is wildly inappropriate.

Case in point #1: when Invenergy sought a deal with the Tribe to provide emergency back-up water at their controversial and now withdrawn proposed Burrillville power station, the first protesters against the deal were tribal members themselves, including Bella Noka, her husband Randy, Domingo Monroe and many others. For the first time in my memory, Charlestown residents and tribal members worked together in coalition.

What looked like a promising watershed in Charlestown’s racial politics was buzz-killed by Joe Larisa testifying at the Dec. 5, 2017 hearing on the issue – at a point when the fight had already clearly been won – to give the audience a lecture on why the deal could not happen because the Tribe had no sovereign right to enter into the deal.

Case in point #2: In 2014-5, Larisa interjected himself into the notorious trial of Charlestown v. Gonsalves and Barber. Norman Gonsalves and Peco Barber were two young Narragansetts who were wrongfully arrested on tribal land by the notorious former CPD cop Evan Speck.

You can read the full details in the brief filed by the Tribe (surprisingly interesting for a legal document) by CLICKING HERE. The details were unrefuted by the Town. Here’s a summary of what happened:

In April 2014, Officer Speck responded to a call from a local guy who thought that maybe he heard a dirt bike or ATV and MAYBE a shot coming from the woods, not exactly an unusual thing for any of us north of Route One to hear. He also wasn’t sure of the direction and didn’t actually see anyone.

Speck got on the case, finding ATV tracks leading toward Schoolhouse Pond. Speck was told by CPD dispatch to stop at the tribal border and wait for a tribal cop.

Instead, Speck violated direct orders by going onto tribal land to Schoolhouse Pond. There was a small gathering of Narragansetts but Speck decided Gonsalves and Barber were the perps because they were loading an ATV onto a truck.

Without evidence, Speck went to arrest them. A heated argument ensued that could easily have led to a firefight, but de-escalated when senior officers arrived from CPD and the Tribal Police.

Based on the facts from CPD’s own reports, the misdemeanor charges should have been dropped and the case should never gone to trial.

However, Larisa was determined to shoot down the Tribe’s argument that Officer Speck should not have been on tribal lands to make the bogus arrest by arguing the Narragansetts have no sovereign rights.

After a three-day trial that ended on January 15, 2015, Judge Joseph T. Houlihan granted the Tribe’s motion to dismiss the charges against Gonsalves and Barber. 

The Westerly Sun reported  that Judge Houlihan ruled Officer Speck should not have gone onto private property (i.e. the Narragansett Tribe’s land), that it was “no different than any officer going onto private property, such as Raytheon in Portsmouth without a warrant.”

Later, Speck was fired from the CPD and sued the Town for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But his case was dropped after an FBI raid on his house led to Speck pleading guilty to three federal charges of illegal distribution of steroids. His three-year probation was due to end last month.

And Larisa kept on going. I’ve written a lot about Larisa over the years. If you want to catch up on Larisa’s long and colorful history as the prime figure in driving Charlestown’s institutional racism against the Narragansetts, CLICK HERE to see all 73 articles where he is mentioned.

We’ll see if Larisa submits a financially acceptable new proposal to Charlestown to bill by the hour, but Monday’s Council vote ended Joe’s 18 year gravy train as Charlestown’s Indian fighter.