It’s time for The Journal’s annual wrap-up of the year’s amusing, awkward and “could only happen here” stories. As usual, there were more than we had room for, so the biggest challenge was to choose.
Here are the winners of the 2017 Rhode Island Red-Faced Awards.
You’d think that if you paid a global business leader like Deloitte almost $400 million, they’d do a good job. The assignment was UHIP — the Unified Health Infrastructure Project to streamline the state’s human-services benefits software. Except they delivered a mess that caused long lines, delayed checks, the resignations of three top state officials and an ACLU lawsuit. The firm’s motto: “Deloitte Consulting helps bring bold strategies to life in unexpected ways.” You can say that again.
Another state might have cringed at being labeled “Crimetown” in the country’s top podcast, but Rhode Island basked in the notoriety. The Journal’s Andy Smith found just the right name for it: “Mafia Nostalgia.” Boston, he pointed out, may have the Red Sox, but we’ll always have Raymond. As one of the podcast’s producers aptly observed: “There’s something of a romance between Providence and its gangsters.”
Giovanni Feroce, the local marketing whiz who helped make Alex and Ani a global jewelry hit, whiffed in his bid at a second act with Benrus, a watch and accessories brand. He overextended, underperformed, lost the company and was forced to sell his Newport mansion in foreclosure to pay off a slew of creditors — with others still in line. But ever the hard-charging optimist, Feroce is mulling a third act as a Republican candidate for governor.
For a state still freaked out by a beach explosion from underground gas build-up that blew a sunbather out of her chair in 2015, it seemed like déjà vu all over again. Folks at Westerly’s East Beach last summer spotted a circular eight-legged metal something-or-other under shallow water, leading to alien speculation. It was dug out by authorities, who still can’t explain what it is. From East Beach Association president Peter Brockmann: “Maybe some little green guy will come lay claim to it.”
Viewers of longtime TV news leader WJAR began to notice some odd content in daily broadcasts. Along with dozens of other stations owned by TV giant Sinclair Broadcasting, WJAR was fed must-run segments reflecting corporate HQ’s pro-Trump outlook. The pieces began to pop up oddly in the news, including reports by former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn, Sinclair’s chief political analyst. Many longtime viewers of WJAR found it, well, jarring.
If there’s one thing you don’t mess with in Rhode Island, it’s the bug — the 58-foot-long blue one overlooking Route 95. But some joker did, putting graffiti on the world’s largest termite. Speaking for many, a local named Hannah Bongionni tweeted, “I feel personally victimized.” The manhunt was on, and Nathan Beaumier, 25, of Providence, previously busted on graffiti charges, turned himself in. A judge ordered him to have no further contact with the bug.
A whimsically solemn funeral was held in downtown Providence in March for an icon/eyesore put out of its misery at age 49. The Fogarty Building, on Fountain Street, once home to state human services offices, was mourned as the city’s best (and worst) example of 1960s “brutalist” design, named after a French word for concrete. The mourners, architecture fans who claimed that even ugly classics deserve love, grieved in wry sorrow as the beast came down to make way for a hotel.
New England has long re-purposed closed factories, but it’s hard to picture loft apartments working in The Cooling Towers. Those would be the ones off Route 195 in Somerset, Massachusetts, built for an astonishing $1.1 billion in 2013 as part of the coal-fired Brayton Point power plant. Last June, after only four years of use, new owners shut down the plant, which they said was outmoded. It left two behemoths as a ghostly gateway to Fall River — and also a 500-foot-tall comment, despite the president’s promises, on what the market says about coal.
It began when Charlestown cop Evan Speck, 34, claimed he got PTSD because of ADHD. Translation: he had post-traumatic stress disorder because he didn’t get disability for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It was so stressful that he took months off police work — during which he flew around the country competing in bodybuilding contests. It ended in a case of whiplash for readers when his story took another turn, with now ex-cop Speck pleading guilty to trafficking steroids. He got 18 months of home confinement, with a year of weekends in the big house.
Last January’s Women’s March in Washington inspired sister marches throughout the world, but the message of empowerment didn’t get through to East Greenwich Town Council Vice President Sean Todd. He tweeted the following: “Definitely a guy came up with the #womensmarch perfect way to get the wives outta the house.” That inspired yet another march, with hundreds converging on the next council meeting and calling for Todd’s resignation. He said he was just trying to be funny. He failed.
It kind of looked like Oz, New York developer Jason Fane’s vision for some vacant Route 195 land — three glittering luxury towers, the tallest at 55 stories. Except, even as he pitched it, the Route 195 Commission was secretly dividing one of the parcels Fane needed for a walkway wanted for another developer’s project. It left Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, a fan of the towers, livid — and was a crash course for Fane in Rhode Island politics. But Fane got the OK to build one 46-story tower, and now awaits action by another model of political rectitude, the Providence City Council.
It was another stellar year for the Providence council, whose president, Luis Aponte, was indicted for embezzling campaign funds. He gave up the presidency but not his seat. A few months later, he weirdly made the news with a Facebook post musing about starting “Throat Punch Thursdays,” asking, “If you could completely get away with it, who would be on your list?” Meanwhile, Councilman Kevin Jackson was indicted on charges of embezzling $127,153 from a youth track program he led for decades. He, too, refused to step down, but his district’s voters insisted, ousting him 1,772 to 158 in a recall.
You always hope that your new new driver’s license photo won’t make you look like a drug dealer. Sadly, it now seems an official requirement. Because of new facial recognition software, drivers are no longer allowed to smile for license photos in Rhode Island. The rules: “shoulders must be square; facial expression is neutral; the mouth is closed.” Maybe people will drive better knowing if they’re pulled over, their ID will makes them look guilty.
Dan Doyle raised millions to create the URI-based International Institute for Sport, including a $575,000 taxpayer grant for a headquarters there. But he secretly grabbed $1 million or so of donor money for spending sprees on his kids’ tuition, real estate and credit card purchases. He remained defiant during years of prosecution, but was found guilty, and schooled hard by Superior Court Judge Melanie Wilk Thunberg. She called him greedy, adding, “In short, Mr. Doyle, you played a dirty game.” His saga ended with Doyle shuffling off in leg irons.
It seemed like a home run proposal — the Pawtucket Red Sox came out of the blast zone of the Providence stadium fiasco with a learned-their-lesson plan to build a Fenway replica in hometown Pawtucket’s Apex complex. They even offered the most generous owner investment of any known Triple-A stadium. The plan drew many supporters, some of whom warned of losing the team to a city like Worcester if the state and city didn’t do its share. But others are saying the rich owners should pay for it all, causing skittish State House pols to delay a vote to the point where the team now says the new park can’t be ready by its 2020 target. And yes, they’ve begun talks that could lead to the 2021 WorSox.
State Rep. Ramon Perez was only trying to do his homework when he came to a hearing with a screen-grab from his computer of a Wikipedia entry for testimony on his automobile crash protection bill. Except — oops — some of the tabs visible on the screen-grab were for porn sites. He apologized, saying he’d let someone else use the computer. “I am not a pervert,” Perez said. “I made a big mistake of trusting too much in people.”
If you think East Greenwich is a sedate enclave of affluent execs, think again. The town’s government this year made banana republics look boring. Firefighter David Gorman sued Town Council President Suzanne Cienki, claiming she called him a sociopath and said, “I will cut off his balls and feed them to his [expletive] dog.” Meanwhile, a judge nullified the council’s June appointment of controversial town manager Gayle Corrigan — both admired and feared as an aggressive cost-cutter — because she was hired in secret. The council responded by rehiring Corrigan — not in secret. Stay tuned for more fear and loathing in East Greenwich in 2018.
As head of the House Finance Committee, Bristol state representative and attorney Ray Gallison was one of the most powerful heavies at the State House. But the Community Grant scandal revealed he’d misused money from his own nonprofit, which he voted to fund with taxpayer dollars. And that was the least of it. He also looted almost $700,000 from a Barrington friend’s estate that he administered and another nine grand from a disabled person’s trust fund. A federal prosecutor called him a scoundrel, and the once mighty Gallison got four years in the slammer.