RI fire chief faces questions after months-long undercover investigation

Where's the Chief? See the Target 12 undercover investigation into Chief Labbadia »

COVENTRY, R.I. (WPRI) – A Target 12 Investigation that involved months of undercover work has raised serious questions over a lack of accountability and public safety concerns about the chief at the Coventry Fire District.

Chief Paul Labbadia is seen in undercover video leaving work in a taxpayer-funded department vehicle to go play golf in another town for hours on end; drinking during the day, then driving the fire department vehicle back to work; and even taking the department vehicle to a party on Federal Hill, where he drank and appeared to smoke – and share – marijuana before once again getting behind the wheel.

In a wide-ranging interview with Target 12, Labbadia denied any wrongdoing.

Taxpayers in the Coventry Fire District paid the highest residential tax rate charged in any of Rhode Island’s 44 local fire districts in the 2011-12 fiscal year, according to a study released last year by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, a think tank. The district’s residential tax rate was $2.80 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

chief extended interview
Watch extended interview »

The RIPEC study noted “the inclusion of the fire district tax can have a significant impact on both the total tax burden and on each community’s relative ranking within the state.” When Coventry Fire District taxes are included, the tax bill for a home valued at $350,000 located in the fire district’s section of Coventry rises from $6,231 to $7,211, the fourth-highest level in the state. Fire district taxes are roughly half as high in the nearby Western Coventry Fire District.

The total tax levy on taxpayers in the Coventry Fire District was $2.1 million in 2012-13, RIPEC said.

Findings

When Target 12 first went undercover to investigate Labbadia, his assigned fire department vehicle was found outside a local pub in Coventry at 12:45 p.m., and the fire chief was inside drinking a beer.

The video shows an unidentified woman asking the chief: “Are you done?” Labbadia responds: “Yes, dear – I’m overdone.”

After finishing his drink, he leaves, gets behind the wheel of the fire department SUV and goes back to the fire station, the video shows.

During months of surveillance Target 12 also found Labbadia to be an avid golfer. His fire department vehicle was often found parked in the lot of a country club in Warwick.

Labbadia – who has been the fire chief in Coventry since 2008 and takes in a full-time salary of just over $72,000 a year – was found at the golf course 10 times in a four-week span, spending no less than three hours there each time. Sometimes he stayed for up to seven hours at a time.

On one Friday Target 12 found Labbadia’s firefighters in the street outside the department collecting money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association; Labbadia was at the golf course at the time, arriving there at 11:30 a.m. and departing at 6 p.m.

Police records show Labbadia was involved in a weekend car accident on Sept. 6 that put his assigned vehicle, a 2014 Chevy Tahoe, in the repair shop. Target 12 video shows he switched over to a red Ford Escape with fire department plates following the accident. Just after he switched over, Target 12 found Labbadia and the Ford Escape at another local pub. He was there at 3:52 p.m. and departed about 90 minutes later.

On Oct. 3 – Columbus Day – Target 12 found Labbadia and his black fire department SUV, which by then had been repaired, parked in a lot behind Atwells Avenue on Federal Hill in Providence.

Target 12 video shows Labbadia working a sausage stand for a restaurant owned by a family member at 11 a.m.

Later in the afternoon Labbadia began drinking beer, the video shows. He continued consuming alcohol into the evening, including beer and sangria served at the tent.

Meanwhile, another Target 12 camera was keeping an eye on Labbadia’s parked taxpayer-funded fire department vehicle. The video shows another man open the front door of the SUV, reach in and work on something in the front seat while looking around.

Eventually, the video shows the man lick the object, then light it, smoke it and share it with two other video individuals. The object appears to be a joint.

After smoking the object, the man walks away with keys in his hand, the video shows.

More Target 12 video from that evening shows Chief Labbadia eventually made his way with a group of men to the parking lot where the fire department vehicle was parked. Labbadia and several of the men can be seen entering a fenced-in area. When they reemerge, the video shows a group of men – including Labbadia – passing around what appears to be a joint. Labbadia is seen taking several drags off the object before handing it off.

The object makes its way around the circle again, and Labbadia again smokes it. The video then shows the process being repeated a third time.

Eventually another man brings out a tray of beers, and Labbadia drinks again.

Just before 2 a.m., the video shows Labbadia getting behind the wheel of his Coventry Fire District vehicle and driving away.

Labbadia’s contract states “it is expected that the Chief will respond immediately to the needs and/or emergencies of the Coventry Fire District when necessary or required.” It adds “it is expressly agreed that this vehicle is provided as a convenience to the Fire District, so that the Fire Chief may respond promptly to the emergencies when needed.”

The contract states that the Coventry Fire District will be held liable for up to $10 million in insurance coverage “for all vehicles driven by him in the course of his duties and while driving Employer vehicles.”

  • FRIDAY: New findings at 6 p.m. – Fire dept. vehicle used to go to NH vacation home.

Chief Responds

Responding to a records request made by Target 12, Labbadia agreed to be interviewed at the fire department.

The wide-ranging interview began with Labbadia being questioned about the golfing.

“Is there enough work for you here where you can go to the golf course so much?” asked Target 12 investigator Tim White.

“Well, I would have to say that my work’s done on a regular basis.” Labbadia replied.

Labbadia referenced his contract, stating he is not a normal “9-to-5” employee and is on call at all times. He said he is always working, even at the golf course.

“So you feel taxpayers should be confident about how much time you’re putting in despite all of the extracurricular activities that we have?” White asked.

“Most [definitely],” Labbadia replied. “I do my job. The district runs fine, I’m always available 24/7 when anybody needs me.”

The chief then said he takes half-days. However, he has not yet supplied Target 12 with timecards to corroborate his statement.

Labbadia answers to a fire district board with five members, all of whom are elected by voters.

“And the board of directors, you think will be comfortable when they see you’re at the golf course so much? They’ll be ok with that?” White asked.

“Well, how much is so much?” Labbadia replied.

“A lot,” White said.

“No […] not at all,” Labbadia replied. “I may go there for lunch because I eat lunch.”

“A seven-hour lunch?” White asked.

“No,” Labbadia replied.

When asked about drinking at a local bar before getting behind the wheel of the fire district SUV, Labbadia initially denied it. “I don’t believe I was drinking at a bar,” he said. “But I may have been at a bar with a couple of the people from the fire station.”

Labbadia was then shown Target 12 video of him at a bar at 12:45 p.m. He identified one of the individuals with him in the video as his deputy chief.

“And that’s you with a beer in your hand?” White asked.

“Yes it is,” Labbadia replied.

“And you drove the SUV and came back here?” White asked.

“Yes probably one beer, most definitely,” Labbadia replied.

Labbadia said he sometimes has a beer with lunch, though he may have been off that day. He added that he thinks it’s only inappropriate to drink and drive the public safety vehicle if he becomes “inebriated.”

When questioned about the men seen in the Columbus Day video accessing the fire district SUV, Labbadia said he was unaware that happened.

“Are you transporting drugs in the fire dept vehicle?’ White asked.

“Not at all,” Labbadia replied.

“What was going on there?” White asked.

“I don’t know,” Labbadia replied, adding: “I don’t know who the two gentlemen are.”

However, the video shows the same man who initially accessed his vehicle – then rolled what appeared to be a joint and smoked it with two others – was socializing with Chief Labbadia later the same evening.

“Are you a little worried that they were able to get into the SUV?” White asked.

“Yeah,” Labbadia replied.

“Are you going to call the cops?” White asked.

“No, I don’t know who they were,” Labbadia replied.

When questioned about his drinking and apparent drug use prior to driving the fire district vehicle that night, Labbadia initially said, “I don’t think I did.”

He was then shown the video.

“This is you smoking what looks to be pot,” White said.

“Cigar, maybe,” Labbadia replied.

“You then share the cigar with your friends there?” White asked.

“I don’t know,” Labbadia replied.

“That’s a cigar?” White asked.

“Yes it is,” Labbadia replied.

“I have to tell you, chief, no one’s going buy that,” White replied.

“I don’t know. I told you I smoke cigars,” Labbadia said.

“You smoke a cigar like this and then hand it to somebody else and they hand it to you?” White asked.

“Maybe,” Labbadia said.

Target 12 sent emails to each of the five-member board that oversees the Coventry Fire District to ask them about the findings, then a week later called Chairman James Beckman, who later returned the call. Beckman declined to comment, stating he needed to see the Target 12 report first.

Labbadia Resume

According to records obtained by Target 12 from the Rhode Island general treasurer’s office, Labbadia, 48, is eligible for a pension after working 17 years as a firefighter with the North Providence Fire Department. A spokesperson for the treasurer’s office said Labbadia purchased three years of pension credits to reach the 20 years required to collect a pension.

Records show Labbadia retired from North Providence at the rank of captain.

Labbadia’s monthly pension payment from North Providence of $2,372.09 is currently suspended while he is employed as chief in Coventry, except for 75 days a year when state law allows him to collect both a public pension and his taxpayer-funded salary.

After leaving North Providence, Labbadia was then hired in September 2005 by the late mayor of Johnston, William Macera, as fire chief in that town. Payroll records show he made $76,590 before being let go by the town on January 8, 2007, after less than two years on the job.

Current Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena told Target 12 he “fired” Labbadia when he was sworn into office.

“He wasn’t my pick and he wasn’t my hire,” Polisena said. “In this business you have to put in people you trust.”

Polisena declined to comment further about the termination.

Meeting minutes with the Coventry Fire District Board on the Rhode Island secretary of state’s website show the district hired Labbadia in February 2008 after being brought in by Gary Cote, who was then chairman of the board and is now president of the Coventry Town Council.

Prior to that a part-time deputy chief ran the department for several months while the search for a full-time chief took place.

The district originally signed Labbadia to a one-year contract. He then signed a five-year deal in January 2009. In 2013 the board renewed his contract for another five years.

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @white_tim

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.

Comments are closed.