Suspended Coventry fire chief fights to keep benefits

Suspended fire chief Paul Labbadia, on the right, appears at NP hearing.

NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Suspended Coventry Fire Chief Paul Labbadia requested more time to produce documents that he claims will show the town of North Providence does not have the right to terminate his medical insurance coverage and pension cost-of-living adjustment, during an administrative hearing Thursday.

Mayor Charles Lombardi, in his capacity as the town public safety director, will make the decision, and while he agreed to give Labbadia time to produce the purported documentation, the mayor also said he wants the case wrapped up within seven days.

“We cannot go into next month,” Lombardi said. “I am very confident in our case against Mr. Labbadia.”

In a letter to Labbadia, Lombardi wrote that the town has evidence to prove the former town firefighter did not meet the service eligibility requirements for a pension, a COLA to that pension or post-retirement medical coverage.

“Preliminary calculations reveal you have unjustly received approximately $23,910.67 of COLA payments and $155,669.85 of family healthy insurance coverage from 2007 to date, for which the Town shall seek full restitution,” Lombardi wrote in the letter.

North Providence fire department pensions are administered through the state’s Municipal Employees Retirement System (MERS), but town taxpayers cover pensioners’ health insurance and COLA payments.

Labbadia, 48, of Coventry, did not talk during the short hearing, and despite several questions from Target 12 as he walked to away, Labbadia would not comment. His attorney, John DeSimone, a Providence State Representative, also would not comment.

Two state police officers were also at the hearing. As first reported by Target 12 the financial crimes unit of the state police are reviewing Labbadia’s pension records. Those records show Labbadia has a pension from 17 years as a North Providence firefighter, but the records also indicate Labbadia purchased credit for three years based on “on-call work” he did in the 1980s. That brought his time of service up to the 20 years required to be eligible for a pension.

Former North Providence Fire Chief Steven Catanzaro wrote a letter vouching for the on-call work according to records, but Lombardi said it is apparent that the former chief had Labbadia confused with one of Labbadia’s relatives who was also a town firefighter at the time.

“That was the norm in this town years ago, Lombardi said. “And every so often that contamination comes to the top.”

The mayor added that the town is looking into other pensions awarded during the era when Labbadia started collecting his.

“And hopefully it’s the only one,” Lombardi said. “But we have to check for the taxpayer.”

North Providence labor attorney Vincent Ragosta said if Lombardi decides against Labbadia, the former firefighter’s only way to fight the decision would be to file a lawsuit against the town.

Labbadia has attracted statewide scrutiny following a Target 12 report that showed the chief leaving work in a Coventry fire department SUV to golf and drink alcohol during the day, and then driving the vehicle back to work. The video also showed Labbadia drive the SUV to a Federal Hill party where he was recorded drinking and apparently smoking marijuana before again driving away in the SUV. It was later revealed that Labbadia was driving that SUV with a suspended license for more than a year.

In a wide-ranging interview with Target 12, Labbadia denied any wrongdoing. After the report aired he was initially suspended with pay, but this week Coventry’s fire district board changed that to a suspension without pay. The board also hired an independent investigator shortly after the Target 12 report, to look into Labbadia’s behavior.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

 

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