No. Providence terminates embattled chief’s retirement benefits

NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Officials in North Providence have sent a letter to embattled Coventry Fire District Chief Paul Labbadia notifying him they are terminating his town-paid health insurance and other retirement benefits.

Mayor Charles Lombardi tells Target 12 the letter was delivered to Labbadia’s attorney on Monday.

The move comes after a Thursday hearing at North Providence Town Hall where Lombardi, North Providence Fire Chief Leonard Albanese and labor attorney Vincent Ragosta presented Labbadia and his attorney John DeSimone with their findings that Labbadia did not reach 20 years of service, as is necessary to collect benefits from the town.

At the meeting DeSimone asked for time to review the records and calculate unused sick and vacation days to see if Labbadia qualified for the benefits.

Ragosta said the town has examined the sick and vacation days since the Thursday meeting. Lombardi said in the letter that in reviewing those records “it is readily obvious that you had not met the service eligibility requirements for the above-mentioned post-retirement benefits.”

“In fact, town records show that you were overpaid 114 hours,” Lombardi added.

Lombardi said the benefits would be terminated as of Dec. 31 and the town would seek to recoup nearly $180,000 in health insurance costs and annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) payments.

A call to Labbadia’s attorney was not immediately returned.

State retirement records show Labbadia has a pension from 17 years he spent working as a firefighter in North Providence. While firefighters need 20 years of service to be eligible for a pension, records show Labbadia purchased credit for three years based on on-call work he did in North Providence in the 1980s.

Under state law, workers can purchase one year of pension credit for every three years of “on call” – or volunteer work – they perform.

According to records provided by the Rhode Island General Treasurer’s office, former North Providence Fire Chief Steven Catanzaro – who worked for former Mayor Ralph Mollis – wrote a letter to the state in 2001 vouching for Labbadia’s decade of on-call work.

“Please be advised that Paul Labbadia was a member of the North Providence Call System from January 22, 1979 until August 31, 1989,” Catanzaro wrote in the letter.

But records supplied to the state by North Providence officials show Labbadia worked on call from only Jan. 1, 1982, to Aug. 31, 1989 – three years short of the 10 years needed to receive the pension credit.

The North Providence Fire Department is in the state-run Municipal Employees Retirement System (MERS), but the town still pays for retirees’ health insurance and COLA increases.

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

As Target 12 previously reported, a detective from the financial crimes unit of the state police as well as state retirement officials are investigating whether Labbadia earned enough to receive his pension.

In the letter to Labbadia, Lombardi said the state retirement system was “deceived.”

“I hasten to add that I find it deeply troubling that [the state retirement system] was deceived of a true accounting of your volunteer service time by then-Chief Catanzaro, and more so, that you acquiesced in this deception and reaped lavish COLA and health insurance benefits that ordinary citizens of our town and state will never attain,” the mayor wrote.

Labbadia, the chief of the Coventry Fire District, has been suspended without pay after a Target 12 investigation that showed the chief drove a Coventry fire department SUV to golf and drink alcohol during the day, then driving the vehicle back to work.

The Target 12 video also showed Labbadia drive the SUV to a Federal Hill party where he was recorded drinking and smoking what appeared to be a marijuana cigarette – sharing it with others – before again driving away in the SUV. Labbadia claims he was smoking a cigar, not marijuana. It was later revealed that Labbadia was driving that SUV with a suspended license for more than a year.

Labbadia has denied any wrongdoing, but the fire district has hired an outside investigator to look into his behavior.

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

This report has been updated from the original: An earlier version stated the letter was delivered to Labbadia’s home. It was given to his attorney.

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