PAWTUCKET, R.I. — The Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training is looking into potential labor law violations at the construction site at the former Memorial Hospital, and the City of Pawtucket has ordered all work on the site to stop as of March 22.
The site is being run by Michael A. Mota, a Rhode Island businessman who is being chased for money in multiple states by creditors, investors, and vendors who did business with his various companies, according to a Globe investigation. Mota says that his company, Bayport International Holdings, is redeveloping the 390,000-square-foot former hospital for a variety of uses: he has announced plans that range from a temporary homeless shelter, to housing veterans, to a co-working space, to private office space, to hundreds of luxury apartments. A banner attached to a chain-link fence at the former hospital reads “Memorial + PLAY - WORK - EAT - LIVE.”
Mota is the CEO and founder of VirtualCons, an entertainment company focused on shows about mobsters, such as “The Sopranos” -- his passion. He is also the president of Bayport International Holdings, a Florida-based public company considered defunct and labeled “buyer beware” by the OTC Markets.
Mota became involved with the former hospital in November, around the same time that a sprinkler leak forced the evacuation of 87 people living in the temporary homeless shelter there. Soon after, Mota introduced himself to state officials, said that he represented the property’s owners, and that Bayport was going to take over the property and lead the redevelopment.
Then, in December, the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training received information about possible labor law violations and launched an “inquiry,” DLT spokeswoman Edwine Paul told the Globe.
Mota did not respond to the Globe’s request for comment. A post on the VirtualCons Facebook page on Wednesday said that Mota’s company had “Exciting news from Florida! Our media team is currently here with Bayport International Holdings INC working on a project. Stay tuned!” A post on Bayport’s Facebook page says the company is there “to seal a significant business deal”
Justin Kelley, a business representative with the Painters and Allied Trades, District Council 11, and the Director of Organizing & Strategic Campaigns for the Rhode Island Building Trades council, said he saw numerous labor law violations when he inspected the site on Feb. 16 as part of the Rhode Island Building Trades organizing committee.
“It’s something we are making sure the appropriate people know about that,” Kelley told the Globe. “We are making sure we are protecting people.”
The Building Trades organizers monitor construction and renovation sites in the state, going directly onto the sites, speaking to workers and supervisors, and checking whether health and safety standards are being met, Kelley said. He also conducts inspections as part of his work with Rhode Island Building Trades.
“When you walk onto a legitimate site, you will see basic postings that you are entering construction site,” Kelley said. He would also expect to see a trailer set up for use as an office, supervisors on site, and signs about protective gear like respirators or hardhats being required. Workers would be dressed appropriately for a construction site, wearing boots, jeans, and hardhats, he said.
But at the Memorial site, Kelley said, they observed a mix of legitimate, professional companies and people who were obviously part of the so-called “underground economy” of unskilled and unprotected labor. “People had pajama pants on, sweatpants, sneakers, no respiratory protection,” he said. “People were working without personal protective equipment, not knowing what they’re doing, and not knowing who they work for.”
Kelley said that his group walked through the facility and noted other safety problems, such as a fourth-floor window that was wide open without anything to prevent someone from falling out. It wasn’t until they were leaving that Mota and several of his associates came out of the building to ask who they were.
After he introduced the Building Trades group, Kelley said, “The first words out of Michael Mota’s mouth was, ‘I know you guys -- you’re like ‘The Sopranos.’”
Kelley said that Mota told them about VirtualCons and Bayport, and said that his father-in-law’s company, Joseph Ricci and Sons, was “going to be” the contractor for the work being done at the former Memorial Hospital.
“He thinks he’s Donald Trump, and he’s not. The whole state of Rhode Island needs to stop this guy,” Kelley said. “I represent hardworking men and women. ... We don’t need projects like that in the state of Rhode Island.”
Kelley told the Globe that he was concerned enough to take action immediately. “Whenever there is an issue where we suspect labor law violations, we bring it to the appropriate state and federal agencies,” he said, though he declined to be specific about where he reported issues he saw with Memorial.
On March 27, the Globe observed that a stop work order addressed to Michael Mota and one of his companies, Memorial Real Estate Group, was duct-taped to the front entrance of the building. It’s dated March 22, and signed by Pawtucket Building Official John W. Hanley.
“Dear Property Owner: You are ordered to immediately stop all work on the buildings located at 111 Brewster St.,” it reads. “There are no active building permits for the interior demolition or the construction of two residential units in the main building. There has also been electrical and plumbing work performed without permits. No more work may be done until permits are issued and this stop work order has been lifted.”
“There is also a business operating illegally on the second floor and several fire doors are padlocked,” the notice continues. “As this structure is not occupiable the business needs to cease and desist immediately and no occupants allowed inside.” It’s signed by John W. Hanley, Pawtucket Building Official.
A spokesperson for the state Department of Housing, which have been in discussions with Mota about leasing the former hospital as a homeless shelter, issued a statement Thursday evening. “Though we have not yet made a determination as to our precise next steps, our attorneys are actively preparing for potential actions such as condemnation,” Joseph Lindstrom said in an email to the Globe. “This preparation ensures that we are fully ready if such an approach is needed and pursued.”
This story has been updated to include a statement from the Rhode Island Department of Housing.