CENTRAL FALLS — As chairman of the North Smithfield School Committee, James J. Lombardi III has handled thorny issues before, such as the closing of the Dr. Harry L. Halliwell Memorial School.
But now Lombardi has agreed to serve as chairman of the Wyatt Detention Facility board, placing him squarely in the middle of a raging national debate over Trump administration immigration policies.
In October, when Lombardi was elected chairman of the Wyatt board, protesters urged board members to resign rather than do the bondholders’ bidding. A Central Falls councilman told the board: “You are turning yourselves into [expletive] puppets.”
That meeting came exactly one week after a grand jury had declined to indict Wyatt correctional officers over an Aug. 14 incident in which an officer drove a pickup into a group of protesters, who were demanding that Wyatt stop accepting Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees.
So why did Lombardi agree to step into this maelstrom?
“I didn’t go in to resign in protest,” he told the Globe in an interview Wednesday. “I went in because I thought that the board and myself could make a difference.”
Lombardi, 54, of North Smithfield, said he has no ties to Central Falls, but having served as Providence city treasurer (a paid position) for the past nine years, he has developed a professional relationship with Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa, who asked him to not only join the board but to become chairman. The board position is unpaid.
Lombardi said that as an attorney and a certified public accountant, he thought he could help with the legal and financial matters confronting Wyatt. And as a school committee chairman, he is familiar with running meetings.
“I think it will take all the experience that I have had in my life to help here,” Lombardi said.
He said he realizes the Wyatt board represents a more volatile situation than the North Smithfield School Committee, where meetings tend to “go very smoothly” and “generally, there’s not a lot of controversy.”
But he said the two positions have similar requirements — including “communicating with the public, being open and transparent, dealing with financial issues.”
Lombardi said he was not bothered by being called a “[expletive] puppet.”
“It wasn’t offensive,” he said. “I understand that they are very angry. I understand their points.”
Protesters blasted Lombardi and the other board members for approving a bondholder agreement that prevents Wyatt from ending its agreement with ICE, that sets up a fast-track process if bondholders decide to sell Wyatt, and that denies Central Falls a role in overseeing the facility.
Lombardi maintained that if it had rejected the bondholder agreement, the board would have been replaced by a trustee in receivership. Bondholders have filed a lawsuit against Central Falls and the Wyatt board to block the removal of ICE detainees, and mediation is underway in federal court.
“We obviously have a fiduciary duty to the corporation, which we will uphold,” he said. “Unfortunately, because we are insolvent, we also have a duty to the bondholders. And with that duty comes lack of flexibility.”
But Lombardi offered another potential course of action for Wyatt.
He suggested issuing a bond to borrow between $40 million to $50 million, with the backing of the state or federal government, and using that money to buy out the bondholders, who are owed about $130 million. Wyatt, a nonprofit prison run by a quasipublic corporation, would use its revenue to pay off the bond over time, with government backing.
But why would bondholders accept anything less than what they are owed? “Because presently, we are not paying the bond,” Lombardi said.
Wyatt has not made a payment to bondholders in several years, a spokesman confirmed.
While Wyatt might be able to make some payments to bondholders in future years, Lombardi said, “In my opinion, we would never be able to pay off the $130 million, even over a 50-year period.”
Under his plan, bondholders would get some amount of money, and Wyatt would end up with greater autonomy, Lombardi said.
“We would be able to make choices as to the detainees we were willing to accept,” he said. “If we floated the bond, we would revert to the enabling legislation that created us. Right now, our actions are controlled by the courts, not statute.”
What would be the rationale for the state or federal government backing such a bond?
The bond would be presented as “economic development” initiative meant to maintain the 271 jobs at Wyatt, Lombardi said.
Lombardi emphasized the plan would have to be presented to the full Wyatt board, in addition to bondholders and government officials. He said he hopes to get support from as many people as possible, including the protesters.
“This is going to be a tough sell,” he acknowledged.
Why would protesters support such a plan?
“It would allow us the freedom to pick which detainees were able to stay, which ones weren’t,” Lombardi said. “Right now, there is no option.”
As of Wednesday, Wyatt contained 721 detainees, including 139 ICE detainees.
Protesters are concerned Wyatt will be sold to a private prison corporation, and they’re urging state lawmakers to pass a law prohibiting private prisons in Rhode Island.
Lombardi said he doesn’t believe the statute that created Wyatt intended for the facility to be sold to a for-profit corporation.
“As chair of the Wyatt board, I do not support the sale to a private prison system,” he said. “I think there are other avenues to pursue first.”