PROVIDENCE — A dispute over towing contracts in Providence has spiraled into litigation and accusations, dredging up old feuds and kickstarting new ones.
In a lawsuit filed in Superior Court in January, State Towing Service, Inc. says Providence wouldn’t pay its invoices, then awarded lucrative towing work to another company — illegally.
Days after the company filed suit, the City Council requested an independent audit of payments made to State Towing. The councilman who sponsored the audit was waging a campaign of retaliation against the company and its owner, who had declined the councilman’s request to donate to his campaign, the towing company’s lawyer alleged in an interview.
“Sounds like the old Buddy Cianci days to me,” said attorney Michael Kelly, who filed the lawsuit along with Jackson Parmenter of Kelly Souza & Parmenter.
According to the lawsuit, Councilman James Taylor hit up the towing company’s owner for a campaign contribution on the same text thread in which Taylor was communicating with the owner about tows in his ward.
Taylor, for his part, says he did nothing inappropriate, and his request for an audit of State Towing had nothing to do with donations or feuds. He is only looking out for Providence taxpayers after the city’s internal auditor identified red flags in State Towing’s billing.
“It’s not about personalities,” Taylor said. “It’s about spending taxpayers’ money wisely and appropriately. In the end, the forensic auditor is going to tell the truth.”
The State Towing situation involves a complicated web of relationships, infighting, and money for unglamorous work that helps the city tick.
State Towing is owned by Michael Salvatore, whose brother is David Salvatore, a former Providence councilman. David Salvatore said in an interview he steered clear of his brother’s business while on the council.
Another former city councilman is also in the mix here. In a court affidavit, Michael Correia says Taylor told him that because David Salvatore was no longer on the council, it now wouldn’t be an embarrassment to investigate his brother Michael.
Taylor said he never said that.
Taylor, in turn, raised questions about Correia’s relationship with State Towing. Taylor said he heard Correia, a friend of Michael Salvatore, now had a desk at State Towing, leading Taylor to believe he was working there or in some way affiliated with the company. Taylor said he heard about the desk from his barber.
“I don’t think my barber is going to lie to me,” Taylor said.
Correia said he is not working for State Towing.
“I don’t even know who his barber is,” Correia said.
In separate interviews, the former close council colleagues made veiled or not-so-veiled accusations about one another.
Towing contracts have a history in Providence going back to the era of Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. and an FBI public corruption investigation known as Operation Plunder Dome. A top Cianci aide and a tow operator were convicted in 2002 in connection with $250,000 in campaign “contributions” that were prompted by threats from the aide over the list of tow operators in the city. Cianci himself was convicted of racketeering conspiracy in the case.
As it stands now, there are a few different ways vehicles are towed in Providence: there are tows of abandoned or city-owned vehicles, which the city issues contracts to remove; and tows where the vehicle owner pays for it, like if they’d parked illegally. Tows generally work through the police department.
According to the lawsuit, State Towing has been doing various towing work for the city for about 18 years. It has faced increased costs, though, for removing things like campers, ATVs, boats, and trailers, because those vehicles were often filled with debris. Then-Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré assured the company that it would be reimbursed for these additional costs, the lawsuit said.
But instead, unpaid invoices for towing work piled up. In January 2022, the council-appointed internal city auditor issued a report questioning State Towing’s billing of the city for abandoned vehicles.
Gina Costa found that the city overpaid for work, and that tow slips were incomplete or illegible. In some cases, Costa said, State Towing charged more than it was supposed to under its bid. In the 2022 fiscal year, the total amount it charged the city jumped significantly, Costa reported.
In State Towing’s telling, it was caught in the middle of a dispute between various city officials, including Paré and Costa. Paré sent a letter to the then-City Council president in May 2022 saying a deputy commissioner was being harassed and threatened by council staff. A lawyer hired by the city rejected those claims and echoed Costa’s concerns over the billing, although Kelly said Costa testified at her deposition that State Towing “was entitled to all the funds billed pursuant to the invoices.” Costa declined to comment.
Paré left city service when Brett Smiley took over for Jorge Elorza as mayor.
“State Towing has been providing services to the city of Providence for decades,” Paré said in an interview. “And the invoices submitted in the last two years are reflective of the work that they’ve provided to the city. And State Towing should be made whole for those services.”
Did State Towing do anything faulty?
“Absolutely not,” Paré said.
In October, after State Towing’s demands, the city paid about $309,000 of $415,000 in outstanding invoices, the suit says. The company says it’s still owed about $106,000.
In the meantime, amid the questions over billing and bullying, the city put out a new request for proposals for towing city-owned and abandoned vehicles. State Towing said it was the lowest, most responsible bidder and was initially recommended to get the whole contract. But the city Board of Contract and Supply ended up splitting the award between State Towing and Sterry Street Auto Sales, with the lucrative “port tow” work going to Sterry Street. “Port tows” refers to towing abandoned boats, campers, trailers, big box trucks and storage containers — the same sort of work at issue in the earlier billing dispute.
That violated regulations, laws, and the request for proposals for the work, State Towing alleges in its suit, which seeks a court order giving it the full towing contract. It had filed a bid protest in November.
But even as the litigation plays out over future work, there’s still scrutiny going on over the work that’s already been done. Taylor’s resolution for an independent audit was approved by the City Council in January. Taylor said he requested it because he was concerned about the results of the internal auditor’s report.
Taylor has been engaged in a well known feud with Paré for years, but he said that wasn’t why he’s scrutinizing the towing contracts.
“Something’s not right, and that’s why I put in for it,” Taylor said.
Kelly, the State Towing lawyer, said Taylor had different motives entirely: Taylor asked Michael Salvatore for campaign donations after Taylor requested towing services from his ward, Kelly said. Salvatore declined to pay up, but is now paying for it in a different way, Kelly said.
“Mr. Taylor has some type of vendetta against Mr. Salvatore because he didn’t make a contribution to him,” Kelly said.
Taylor said he was not acting in retaliation over campaign contributions — “That’s totally false,” he said — and that he sends fundraiser invites to various people in his contact list.
According to documents filed in court, Taylor and Salvatore texted about towing in Taylor’s ward on August 24, 2021, and again in February 2022. (Taylor said he worked through the police department; State Towing said Taylor requested the work directly from them.) The invite to the fundraiser was in September 2021. Salvatore did not make a donation.
Earlier this month, the city and State Towing agreed in court that the city wouldn’t execute the contract for port tows with Sterry. Depositions are taking place now.
“This is just another example of the dark cloud that hangs over City Hall regarding tow operators in the city and how they’re treated by certain elected officials,” said David Salvatore, the former councilman and brother of State Towing’s owner. “Unfortunately, that cloud still looms over City Hall.”
Taylor, the target of that criticism, sees things differently.
“It’s about spending taxpayers’ money wisely and appropriately,” he said.
Brian Amaral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.