FBI source in No. Providence corruption probe speaks out

WATCH: Part one of "Wearing a Wire."

NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Paul Caranci wanted out.

It was 2009 and the then-North Providence town councilman had been wearing a wire for the FBI for more than five months, secretly recording meetings and phone calls with three of his corrupt council colleagues.

“It was such an intrusion on my life you can’t even imagine,” Caranci told Target 12 in an extended interview about his time undercover. “More than I ever thought possible.”

Caranci said he couldn’t talk to anyone at the time, so he poured his emotions into a journal — even though he’d been instructed by the FBI not to write anything down during the investigation.

More: FBI source speaks about turbulent life after investigation >>
More: Caranci speaks about his turbulent life after the investigation »

When Caranci confessed to Special Agent James Pitcavage – the lead investigator in the corruption probe – about what he was doing, the veteran FBI agent wasn’t pleased.

“He let me know it in no uncertain terms and in a loud voice that he was upset,” Caranci said. “I said, ‘You know I’m done. You got the tapes, you got the evidence you need, I’m out of here. I’m all done. I’m not doing this anymore.'”

But the case was far from over. At that point, Caranci said, the FBI likely had enough evidence on one of three town councilmen, but they needed him to continue wearing the wire to get the others.

Pitcavage and his direct boss – then-Supervisory Special Agent Jeffrey Sallet – later met with Caranci in a car, and convinced him to stay embedded in the conspiracy.

“Sometimes people wonder whether or not if they’re doing the right thing,” Pitcavage recalled in a recent interview. “Paul had been very committed to this case, and I think it was just a matter of reinvigorating him.”

In all Caranci spent 17 months as the man identified in court paperwork as “confidential source #1.” Six years after making his first recorded phone call, flanked by two FBI agents, Caranci is speaking out about his life undercover and the aftermath.

Caught on Tape: Undercover FBI audio recording between Paul Caranci and convicted councilman John Zambarano recorded on Feb. 9, 2009. LISTEN TO AUDIO »

‘I had to do it’

Paul Caranci was the odd man out on the North Providence Town Council. First elected in 1994, he butted heads with some of his colleagues and was regularly the dissenting vote on projects he thought were being rushed through.

At best, he thought, some members were lazy; at worst, on the take.

After one particular council meeting Caranci was enraged: a major project impacting his constituents was put on the fast track and he felt hopeless to slow it down, let alone stop it.

He was convinced something was going on behind the scenes.

“I felt betrayed,” Caranci said. “In typical fashion I was venting to my wife — I did that frequently after council meetings.”

To his surprise, his wife urged him to go to the FBI.

Wearing a Wire Case Files: Key Players, Federal Indictment, FBI Documents
Wearing a Wire Case Files: Key Players, Federal Indictment, FBI Documents »

“I knew the implications of doing that… what they would be,” Caranci said. “I feared that it would cost me my job possibly [and] I knew that there would be people in town that would refer to me as a rat from that point forward.”

At the time Caranci worked for the state as an employee of then-Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, a former North Providence mayor.

Caranci said he and his wife both concluded that if he remained silent, he wouldn’t be acting any differently than those he suspected of taking bribes.

“They were doing it to improve their lifestyle, I would’ve been allowing it to continue only to enhance or maintain my lifestyle,” Caranci said. “I thought that would be equally wrong.”

After reaching out to the FBI, Caranci met Pitcavage at a Cranston restaurant. The agent listened to the North Providence politician as he laid out all his suspicions. In the end Pitcavage determined there was one way to crack the case: Caranci had to wear a wire.

“My recollection was he wanted to think about what the role was going to be and what the consequences may be after the case was over,” Pitcavage said.

That’s a polite way of saying if Caranci agreed, his life would never be the same. It was one thing to be a tipster, another to be an undercover source.

“I offered three or four different suggestions on how they could get the evidence they needed without me wearing a wire,” Caranci said. “But it came down to I had to or there was no way to really stop this.”

Caranci said Pitcavage didn’t pressure him in any way. “I knew I had to do it,” he said.

‘You’re not recording this are you?’

The first recorded phone call Caranci ever made was to then-councilman John Zambarano. He placed the call in his North Providence home flanked by two FBI agents.

During the call Caranci used a sleight of hand, attempting to convince Zambarano that he had overheard him talking to Council President Joseph Burchfield and Councilman Raymond Douglas while at a conference in Florida about a deal in the works.

The fact was, Caranci never overheard any such conversation.

Timeline: Wearing a Wire
Timeline: North Providence Corruption Probe »

Caranci said it had been several months since the conference, “I knew that John probably wouldn’t realize that I wasn’t present.”

On the recording – obtained by Target 12 from federal court – Zambarano is clearly taken aback some. His denials are littered with pregnant pauses.

“You know what I’m talking about. That thing you were talking about in Florida at the restaurant,” Caranci is heard telling Zambarno in the recording. “Why don’t you guys include me in this stuff?”

Zambarano pauses, then asks: “Who was talking in Florida about anything?”

“You,” Caranci says. “You and Ray and Joey.”

At first it wasn’t clear if Zambarano bought it. But days later he called back and wanted to meet with Caranci at a coffee shop in North Providence.

It was Jan. 27, 2009, and the FBI wired Caranci with a hidden camera that also recorded audio.

Caranci said he arrived trembling, petrified that he would be frisked and the wire discovered.

“The wire ran down the front of my shirt and into my pants and a little hole was cut in my pants pocket … attached to a recording device that was in my pocket,” Caranci said. “I was nervous beyond belief and I was quite fearful for my life at that point.”

Caranci arrived early and moved a chair so Zambarano would be positioned across the table from him.

He said Zambarano walked in, bought an iced coffee and then told Caranci to meet him in his car.

“Before he started talking he said to me, ‘You’re not recording this, are you?’” Caranci said. “I said ‘John, please,’ something to that effect.”

Unfortunately, it was dark in the car as soon as the dome light faded away, rendering the video useless. But the audio recording became a pivotal part of the case.

“So you come tomorrow night, if you go along with the show and vote for everything we’ll give you $4,000,” Zambarano says to Caranci in the recording. “I negotiated this deal and they were in on it from the beginning.”

Caranci was now cut into the scheme.

Video captured by hidden camera in Paul Caranci’s car. The footage shows Caranci accepting a payment of over $4,000 for a vote to approve a supermarket project.

On Feb. 10, 2009, the Town Council voted to approve the project, for a supermarket, despite objections from neighbors who were concerned about congestion in the area.

A day later Caranci drove to Zambarano’s home and waited in the driveway. The car was wired with a hidden camera, and when Zambarano opened the door this time the light stayed on just long enough to capture him handing Caranci $4,000 in cash for the vote.

The FBI agents had asked Caranci to minimize his contact with the cash so they could dust it for fingerprints, but Caranci can be seen on the video manhandling the money before putting it in his pocket.

“I guess from being so nervous,” he said. “Before I put it in my pocket I probably wiped every print that was on it, off.”

Caranci would later learn the FBI was monitoring the meeting from afar in case Zambarano took him to another location, out of concerns for Caranci’s safety.

That night Caranci met up with two FBI agents – including Pitcavage – and handed over the cash. A sense of relief washed over him: with the recordings, the vote and the cash, Caranci thought his role was over.

But Pitcavage needed Caranci to stay on.

“He explained that this was probably enough evidence on John Zambarano but it really wasn’t enough on the others,” Caranci said. “We needed to continue taping in order to get more information on the other participants.”

Caranci agreed — not knowing he’d remain undercover, acting the part of a corrupt councilman, for another year.

“It was very unique,” Pitcavage said. “When you find somebody who is willing to do that, it’s an exception.”

‘I knew my life would be different’

The FBI gave Caranci a codename during the sting, referring to him as “coupon” in phone calls and meetings. Pitcavage said it was a random word the agency assigned to conceal his identity and had no meaning. But Caranci hated it and eventually refused to use it.

Unlike many FBI cooperators Caranci hadn’t done anything illegal: he had basically volunteered for the job. So when he threatened to leave the case, there was nothing the government could do but try and convince him to stay on.

Pitcavage acknowledged the outcome “could have been very different” if Caranci walked away.

“We may not have been successful,” Pitcavage said. “We may not have had the number of convictions that we had.”

Caranci said Sallet – Pitcavage’s supervisor – explained to him that because he had done nothing wrong his testimony would be more believable, and like Pitcavage urged him to stay on the case.

Caranci recalls sitting in the back seat of Sallet’s car for more than an hour before coming back around.

While the evidence gathered up to that point allowed the FBI to obtain court-ordered wiretaps on Zambarano and Douglas’s cell phones, Caranci’s role as an insider in a corruption scheme was immensely valuable.

Caranci said the entire time he was undercover he was afraid someone would grow suspicious and find the recording device he wore almost around the clock.

“I thought the wire would be discovered,” Caranci said. “[That] I would be frisked and the wires would be found and they might do some serious damage to me, if not kill me.”

Another project and bribe opportunity emerged before long: this time a project to convert an old mill into condominiums. In recorded conversations, Zambarano admitted there was no real opposition to the project and he would normally just approve it, but said he would tell the developer that neighbors had concerns to falsely make them believe there was an issue.

According to court records, Douglas told the developer in order to green light the project “the Council had to be paid” and demanded $75,000.

Caranci – again the odd man out – was told the bribe was only $25,000 in an effort to short him of some of the proceeds.

The developer refused to pay the bribe and at a special meeting on April 6, 2010, Zambarano, Douglas and Burchfield voted to defer action on the project. They were sending a message.

Less than a month later, working through a middleman, court documents show a $21,000 bribe was paid as a “down payment” on the $75,000.

Two weeks later FBI agents – including Pitcavage – conducted a predawn raid, scooping up Zambarano, Douglas and Burchfield. The trio were arrested and brought to federal court to face corruption-related charges.

At the time Caranci was in Baltimore accompanying his wife to a conference. He said the first person to call him about the arrests was his fellow councilman Frank Manfredi, who shared the news. Then Pitcavage called him to let him know what had happened, and urged him not to speak with anyone.

“From the moment I got that phone call I knew my life would be different,” Caranci said.

Rhode Island is a small state, and it didn’t take long to figure out who “confidential source #1” was. Caranci’s phone was ringing off the hook.

“I let them go into voicemail,” Caranci said. “I got calls from a lot of friends, some saying, ‘I hope you’re not the cooperating witness.’”

Zambarano, Douglas and Burchfield eventually pled guilty to charges including conspiracy and accepting a bribe. In September Burchfield was released to home confinement.

The FBI wiretaps on the phones of Douglas and Zambarano captured other illegal activity: Douglas was wrapped up in an extortion plot and Zambarano in insurance fraud. They both remain behind bars in separate prisons in Pennsylvania. Zambarano’s sentence ends in December, while Douglas is set to be released in January 2017.

In addition, former North Providence city solicitor Robert Ciresi was convicted by a jury for his role as a middleman in the bribery scheme for the supermarket project, which was never built. The 81-year-old is at Fort Dix federal prison until April 2016.

Businessman Edward Imondi – who pleaded guilty to charges he facilitated the bribe in the mill project – was released from prison in 2012.

Caranci’s life was not an easy one after it became public he was the confidential source in the case. His property continues to be vandalized and – labeled a rat by some – he said he and his family have been repeatedly harassed.

Without question, Caranci said he is a different man than he was in 2009 when this all began.

He admits that from a “personal perspective” it may not have been worth it due to “the things I had to endure as a result of it.”

He attributes his role in the investigation to his inability to get a job in Rhode Island. He has since moved to Indiana.

“In the greater realm I think it certainly was worth it,” Caranci said. “If I had to tomorrow I would do it again. I wouldn’t change anything.”

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

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