Following a jury’s decision last month in favor of former Town Councilwoman Eileen Fuoco in her lawsuit against Mayor Joseph Polisena, attention has been drawn as to how the $34,000 in damages awarded, along with the mayor’s legal fees, will be paid.
In October 2013, Councilwoman Fuoco filed a complaint in Superior Court against Polisena. According to court documents, Fuoco alleged that at the October 15, 2013 Town Council meeting, Polisena disclosed private information from her personal payroll file to the council, which included but was not limited to her Social Security number.
Three complaints were lodged against Polisena, including disclosure of Fuoco’s personal information, libel and slander, and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” The jury decided that Polisena is responsible for $20,000 in damages to Fuoco, along with two years worth of a council member’s salary, equaling another $14,000. Polisena has vowed to appeal that decision.
During a special meeting held in January 2015, the Johnston Town Council voted to indemnify any costs associated with the case. At Monday’s Johnston Town Council meeting, resident Jean Lynch addressed the council during the public comment section of the meeting to inquire about the settlement and the indemnification.
“Four members of this council were present at the special meeting, January 20, 2015, when the council voted to indemnify this case and put the cost of the mayor’s malicious actions and violations on the taxpayer,” said Lynch. “It is election time, and this council needs to make amends to do the right thing for the people. Put this case where it belongs, on Polisena’s shoulders.”
Following Lynch’s statement, Town Solicitor William Conley addressed the council regarding the legal issues raised “for purposes of a complete record.”
According to Conley, the proceedings of the case between Fuoco and Polisena in Superior Court “is not done,” and the trial court is presently reviewing the jury’s verdict to determine whether or not the decision should stand. He said that a decision by the trial court should be rendered “within weeks” and that the verdict is not yet final.
Conley stated that there were legal reasons for the indemnification and that during his time as solicitor there have been several instances where the council was required to indemnify others due to legal action.
Conley cited Rhode Island state law, Section 45-15-16, which states in part that town or city councils shall, by ordinance or otherwise, indemnify elected officials from all loss, cost, expense, and damage, including legal fees and court costs, arising out of any claim, action, compromise, settlement, or judgment.
“The town of Johnston is not alone. At least 22 other municipalities have, in addition to adopting state statutes and being required by state statutes to indemnify, have also through ordinance refined the indemnifications and the process for the indemnification,” said Conley.
A case filed by Charda Properties, LLC, was then cited as an example by Conley as another instance when indemnification was granted by the council. Conley went on to list seven counts brought against former Councilman Ernest Pitochelli in that lawsuit, which resulted in an agreement for judgment in the amount of $150,000, or $15,000 paid each year for 10 years.
“I advised the administration and the council the same then as I did in [the mayor’s] case of its requirements to indemnify based on the nature of that lawsuit. This council did indemnify, provided the defense, and the town is paying the judgment in that case,” said Conley.
This was the second time in as many council meetings that the case involving Pitochelli was brought up, the last being by Councilman Robert Russo during the budget meeting held on June 25, where Pitochelli was the only member of the public to speak.
Pitochelli, who was present at Monday’s meeting, made a point of personal privilege and stated that it was the first time he had heard this information and said there were others involved in that litigation, not just himself. Court documents for that case list six other names besides Pitochelli, along with the Town of Johnston Planning Board, Zoning Board, and the town itself. Conley then stated that the counts he listed were against Pitochelli personally, and that the former councilman had been provided a memo outlining the case information at the time it was filed.
Mayor Polisena was not present during Monday’s Council meeting.