Three North Providence town councilmen, including the President of the Town Council, were arrested by federal agents today on criminal complaints charging them with extortion and accepting a bribe. It is alleged the councilmen accepted a $25,000 bribe in return for favorable votes on a zoning change for a retail development project. U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha announced the arrests of Council President Joseph S. Birchfield, and Town Councilmen Raymond L. Douglas III and John A. Zambarano.
To be clear, a complaint is merely an allegation and a defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
Birchfield, 42, Douglas, 42, and Zambarano, 47, all residents of North Providence, were arrested earlier today by FBI agents. Each made an initial appearance in U.S. District Court before Magistrate Judge David L. Martin, who released the defendants on $50,000 unsecured bond. Extortion is punishable by a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison. Bribery is punishable by a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison.
According to affidavits filed with the U.S. District Court, the three councilmen voted in favor of amending the Town’s Comprehensive Plan to re-zone a six-acre parcel of land from Commercial Professional and Residential General to Commercial General use in exchange for a $25,000 cash payment from the developer. The developer sought a zoning change to allow for the construction of a supermarket on Plympton Street near Mineral Spring Avenue.
In late summer 2008, the developer began discussions with the Town of North Providence to develop the land. The supermarket project was first presented to the Town Council in early October 2008. The matter came before the council on several occasions before a vote to approve the zoning change occurred on February 10, 2009. The vote to approve the project was 7-0.
The defendants held several meetings and discussions planning their actions and to affect payment of the bribe money. The bribe was delivered by the developer’s attorney to Zambarano. Disbursement of the bribe money was completed the day after the council’s February 10th vote.
The matter is being investigated by the FBI, with the assistance of Rhode Island State Police, Providence Police, DEA, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys John P. McAdams and Terrence P. Donnelley.