NEWS

Mayor’s debts ignite Facebook storm

Rob Cote files ethics complaint over unreported debts

By John Howell and Alex Malm
Posted 2/16/22

By JOHN HOWELL and ALEX MALM The medium Frank Picozzi used to help win election as an independent candidate for mayor he is now using to defend himself over attacks he did not fully disclose what he owes in personal debts. In response to a story in the

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NEWS

Mayor’s debts ignite Facebook storm

Rob Cote files ethics complaint over unreported debts

Posted

The medium Frank Picozzi used to help win election as an independent candidate for mayor he is now using to defend himself over attacks he did not fully disclose what he owes in personal debts.

In response to a story in the Hummel Report released online Friday and published in the Providence Journal the following day, Picozzi acknowledged in a Facebook post he is chipping away at paying off his debts and that he has a payment plan with the Internal Revenue Service. According to the Hummel Report, the mayor has defaulted on multiple payment plans and that those defaults and claims including $33,000 owed the IRS total more than $100,000 according to city records. 

In an interview Sunday, Picozzi said he made no secret about his debts, although he didn’t go into the details when asked for specifics. He said his debts “snowballed” to a point where he couldn’t keep up with payment plans.

“I have been working on it (payment plans) for years,” he said.

In his report, Jim Hummel said Picozzi failed to disclose his debts on his ethic’s report that is now the subject of a complaint filed with the Ethics Commission by Warwick activist Robert Cote. Cote provided much of the court documents used by Hummel. Cote has been highly critical of the mayor on the social media platform Nextdoor including his plan for an outdoor skating rink on the site of the former City Hall Annex; a contract giving 10.6 percent raises to police and municipal employees over three years and a 15-year renewable lease with AAA Northeast for the saw tooth building in Apponaug. Once a part of the Apponaug Mill, the space will consolidate city offices when the build out is completed later this year. Cote points to the lease as an unneeded expense when the city has sufficient space in vacant buildings for the municipal offices. Most of those offices are now located in the former Buttonwoods Community Center, once a school transformed into a senior center. The City Council approved the lease as well as an amendment when AAA returned with an $800,000 addition to be paid over ten years resulting from the escalating cost of materials.

As for the ethics complaint, Picozzi said he was unaware of campaign requirements to disclose all debts and that he will abide by the commission’s findings. According to the court records Cote obtained, Picozzi obtained credit cards from Old Navy, Home Depot, Lowes and others. 

Hummel reported Cote’s complaint consisted of 17 pages of documents from District and Superior Courts of judgments against Picozzi.

“I wasn’t trying to hide anything,” Picozzi said.

On Facebook, Picozzi outlined his finances in broad terms Friday morning.

“I was for a long time a home improvement contractor. I never made a ton of money but I put food on the table and kept the electricity on and we were a very happy family. Around 2008 or 2009 when the recession hit and the economy tanked, work became very scarce. I always managed to find some and worked long, hard hours but there was so much competition for work the rates were not very lucrative. To supplement the low income that I did manage to make, we went through our modest savings and then began to go through our credit just to keep food on the table and stay in our house. The debt just kept growing over the years.”

Thus far Facebook posts, as well as public comment, are overwhelmingly sympathetic of Picozzi’s financial plight. With that said on Saturday, Picozzi posted on the Positive Warwick page stating in part, “I am overwhelmed and appreciative of all the support from the posts, messages, texts etc. But I’m a big boy and I can take the shots, I just wish my family didn’t have to go through it. ANYWAY, I ask that you stop posting about it and let’s get this group back to normal.”

That led to an exchange between Picozzi and Rick Cascella the Chairman of the Warwick Republican City Committee which was eventually deleted.

“All political comments on this post have been removed and I have turned off commenting,” said Joyce Currier Brown the Administrator for the Positive Warwick page. “Any issues with either of those actions message me.”

Numerous positive comments remain on the post.

Visit from councilman

Picozzi said he didn’t know what to expect when Ward 3 Councilman Tim Howe called Friday afternoon, soon after the story broke, and asked if he would be in his office. Picozzi said City Hall doesn’t close until 4:30 and he would at least be in his office until then.

Howe showed up and took a photo of the two of them, following up with a post saying he stands with his friend Frank Picozzi, “as no man should be personally attacked like they were today.”

While Howe doesn’t name Cote, it is evident for those who follow Cote that Howe is referencing him when he writes that elected officials can anticipate to be criticized, “but when a narcissist cowardly publicizes and gloats over the private challenges a family faces, which do not affect the city in any way, but only because he disagrees with his policies and politics, it is shameful.” 

Ahead of the Hummel report being released, Picozzi took to his Facebook page on Friday morning to address the story.

“When I first announced my candidacy for Mayor I said that full disclosure was necessary,” Picozzi wrote. “I disclosed that I had serious financial difficulties in my life. I disclosed it at the outset of my candidacy and again during the campaign when my opponent started getting the word out about it. The topic has come up again so I will once again disclose it.”

Picozzi said that was re-disclosing it now because “recently a resident that has a history of digging up dirt on people and trying to destroy their lives and reputations targeted me and my money troubles on another social media platform. I don’t think he got the results that he wanted because today I was contacted about this subject by a reporter that is a frequent ally of this resident. He’ll be doing a story about it.”

“I never made a lot of money doing it but my work was the best in the business. If you know me you know that I am not the kind of person that likes to toot his own horn,” Picozzi wrote in his post. “But I’m going to say this: during all of this and throughout my life I have tried to be as good a human being as possible. I didn’t steal, sell drugs, or scam anyone. I coached kids and helped run youth sports leagues. I helped as many people in my community in any way that I could. I put an enormous amount of time and any money that I could spare into putting on a Christmas display for the sole purpose of giving people some enjoyment and raising money for sick kids.”

Ethics complaint 

Cote in an interview Monday said he didn’t begin to look into Picozzi’s personal financial history due to personal reasons.

Instead he says he researched the mayor’s financial history because of what he considers financially irresponsible municipal decisions.

Cote’s research took him to the Kent County Courthouse where he found scores of documents related to Picozzi’s financial history. 

“I was shaking, I couldn't believe it,” said Cote. 

According to the ethic report form, elected officials are required to list debts they or their spouse have greater than $1,000 except for “Indebtedness that is secured solely by a mortgage of record on real property that is used exclusively as your principal residence, if held by a financial institution regulated by any state or by the United States.”

The other exception is for “Indebtedness to a credit card company.”

According to Cote, Picozzi and his wife have a combined 20 judgments against them. Online court records show they date from 2014 to 2019. 

Cote’s claim is that since the credit cards went to collections, and ultimately had court ordered judgments against the Picozzis they should have been claimed on the ethics report. 

“To the best of my knowledge I filled out my financial disclosure form properly but I will await the results and if I did it incorrectly I will apologize profusely,” Picozzi wrote in a Facebook comment. 

Ken Block, a former Republican candidate for Governor who worked with Cote on bringing to light inconsistencies in firefighter pay also took to Facebook to express his thoughts in response to the Hummel report article. 

“Getting jammed up and owing debt as a result is not disqualifying on its own. However, the Piccozis have been having IRS and debt issues since the 80s,” said Block. “If this is simply a case of Piccozi being a bad businessman, as he claims, one has to wonder how he could ever possibly competently run a $300 million budget like Warwick’s. If Piccozi systematically stiffed his creditors alongside his wife, that is another matter altogether.”

Block wrote on his Facebook post, “what risk does Warwick run having a Mayor who is under so much financial pressure? Is the Mayor susceptible to bribes and other dirty deals? Does the Mayor owe taxes to the state of Rhode Island?”

“What Warwick does not need is someone who is awful at finance sitting in the Mayor’s office,” said Block. “ The city’s liabilities are monstrous and the city can ill afford a Mayor who does not even know how much he owes to his creditors.”

Cascella in a letter to the editor said that he thinks Picozzi should apologize. He noted there was no apology from Picozzi in the Hummel report.

“Missing was any regret, no remorse and no apology for keeping this behavior from the voters and his supporters,” said Cascella.

Show of support 

In addition to Howe, other city councilors have expressed support for Picozzi since the ethics complaint has been lodged against him. 

In 2020 Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladourceur broke Democratic ranks when he supported Picozzi over the late Mayor Joseph Solomon.

On Sunday, Ladourceur took to Facebook to once again throw his support behind the Mayor. 

“As a self-employed contractor I get it and I realize the challenges that we have to deal with to stay in business, in order to make ends meet and to survive,” Ladouceur’s statement read. “We all have ups and downs, good times and some not so good. I have experienced hardships along the way. Those hardships have made me realize that I will not judge people by how many times they fall but how they get back up and move on.”

Ladouceur in his post said “I believe that he has surrounded himself with some very talented and qualified people.”

“ I believe that one needs to surround themselves with people that are much smarter than yourself to be successful in the areas that you are weak,” said Ladouceur. 

Ladouceur concluded his post by saying that he is going to continue to support Picozzi. 

“I will measure Frank Picozzi’s success as Mayor by what he does as our Mayor and not what has happened in his personal life,” said Ladouceur. “That is between Frank, his family and God. I will continue to support Mayor Picozzi for all the reasons I did in 2020 and I will continue to offer my assistance to him as we go forward.”

Council President Steve McAllister said in a statement Monday that “the Mayor has been open and honest about his personal finances.”

“He hired a finance director with over 30 years of experience working on state and local budgets.  All major expenses need to be approved by the majority of the city council,” said McAllister. “This includes the annual city budget, contracts and all borrowing/bond requests.  The public has the opportunity to be heard on all financial matters at city council meetings.  All financial decisions are voted on in public after testimony from the administration, and questions from the city council and members of the public.”

Former city employee responds 

In response to Ladouceur's Facebook post Russell Moore, who was the Director of Tourism under the Solomon Administration commented “When CVS or Lifespan, or any major, large organization hires someone to be their CEO or Chief Financial Officer, etc, they subject that person to a credit check.”

“The rationale is, if the person cannot manage his or her own personal finances, than that person should not be trusted to manage budgets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. If the person has a credit score even half as bad as this person, they're not considered. (I get it, you know more than the best practices of fortune 50 companies.),” said Moore. “The City of Warwick's budget, with the school department factored in, is several hundred million dollars. Yet that sound, rational way of thinking--don't hire someone fiscally irresponsible--is completely dismissed by everyone commenting on social media about this story.” 

In conclusion to his comments Moore wrote, “I am aware that social scientists have done studies that show people vote based on their emotions, how a person makes them feel, instead of how qualified a candidate is. ("George W. Bush? Now that's a guy I'd like to have a beer with!") So I do understand the phenomenon in play. I get it. But I can't wait to see the surprise you're all going to feign when you have future budget deficits,” Moore wrote. 

Moore’s former boss Solomon brought up Picozzi’s financial history during the 2020 campaign. 

“I feel bad for Mr. Picozzi and his personal debts, especially the one recently put on for back taxes. In March when COVID began he got a lien for back taxes,” said Solomon during the closing statement of the WPRI Newsmakers debate. “But if you can’t take care of your own personal finances I ask how can you take care of a $300 million budget City?”

Moments before Picozzi said he had no political debts but still had personal ones.

According to the Ethics Commission website the Commission has the authority to investigate violations of the code of ethics and to ” impose penalties, as provided by law.”

The Commission “may, upon a finding that there has been a violation of the Code of Ethics, issue an order that, among other things, may ‘require such violator to pay a civil penalty of not more than twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000.00) for each such violation of the Code of Ethics and the pecuniary value of any unjust enrichment realized by the violator as the result of his or her violation of the Code of Ethics . . . .’”

“The imposition of such penalty may accrue either through the completion of an adjudicatory proceeding and subsequent penalty imposed on the violator by the Commission or by way of an agreed upon Informal Resolution and Settlement between the parties, which has been approved by the Commission,” the Commission website also states. “Fines collected by the Commission are thereafter deposited in the State of Rhode Island General Fund. Violators subject to a penalty may further be subject to collection action in instances of failure to timely pay.”

It couldn’t be ascertained when or even if the commission will hear the complaint.

mayor, debt

Comments

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  • Blondy56

    I find it amazing that the citizens of Warwick don't see the implications from the mayors inability to handle his own small business. He didn't just not pay one bill....him and his wife, Kim< spent years opening and then defaulting on credit card accounts as well as IRS payments. Not only did he default, he didn't even have the grace to show up for court hearings. It's not about judging or exposing....it's simply about his qualifications to run our city.

    Thursday, February 17 Report this

  • Blondy56

    I'm actually shocked that my Council person Ed Ladouceur would continue to defend him and actually blame Rob for exposing the truth. My question to Ed, would you be willing to hire Frank Picozzi to handle your business finances???? Disappointed at best.

    Thursday, February 17 Report this

  • The Berg

    Questioning a contract that provides 10.6 percent raises to police and municipal employees over three years when the inflation rate in 2021 was more than 7 percent continues to expose just how little some in the public value the services provided by front line workers following a pandemic.

    Friday, February 18 Report this