Sunday, March 19, 2006

Corrupt Connecticut Courts and Police hide much of this statewide:

`Sheriff' In The Cross Hairs
March 19, 2006 By JOSH KOVNER And MARY ELLEN FILLO, Hartford Courant Staff Writers

Cheryl and John Hummel of Rocky Hill were looking forward to moving into their new house, but the builder, a fiery fellow named John Raffa, had other ideas.

In 1994, the landscaping had not been finished and there was a pile of construction debris in the back. So Raffa, who said he was owed money by the bank, drove a backhoe onto the front yard of the Sunny Crest Drive house to block the Hummels' moving truck.

Police and lawyers were called, Raffa stormed off, locks were changed by the family, and the Hummels were left with a memory of Raffa that will last a lifetime.

Raffa, now Westbrook's first selectman and facing two felony charges for allegedly abusing the power of his office, can have that effect on people.

A review of his business, political and family life in Rocky Hill, where he remained active until 2003, reveals a hot-tempered man who occasionally lashed out with hostility at anyone in his way. Some of his behavior foreshadowed the situation he finds himself in today.

The image of Raffa atop a backhoe may feel familiar to some in Westbrook. Town employees, contractors and others who have had confrontations with the first selectman have all heard him utter the clarion call of his four stormy months in office:

"There's a new sheriff in town."

But the "new sheriff" is in trouble. He was charged in February with attempted extortion and coercion. Prosecutors allege he tried to get his old Rocky Hill business partner, Richard Tulisano, to drop a 2003 lawsuit over a business dispute by holding hostage a Westbrook housing development being pursued by one of Tulisano's clients.

Sources said last week that the same law officers who arrested him in the Tulisano case are now reviewing for any criminal conduct two unauthorized building inspections Raffa did in December on a Boston Post Road restaurant owned by a campaign donor.

The inspections on a foundation for an addition being built by Pazza owner Louis Polidoro occurred four days after Polidoro made a $200 contribution to Raffa's campaign, and four days after Building Official Roger Zito had issued a stop-work order on the project. In his inspections, Raffa deemed the project in compliance - although his finding carried no weight. The project was allowed to proceed only after an inspection by an outside building official, requested by the Westbrook inspector.

Polidoro said in an interview that he asked Raffa to intervene, and that the first selectman responded "to help out a taxpayer who was trying to get his project in the ground."

The state building inspector rebuked Raffa in January, writing in a letter to Raffa that the inspections violated state statutes and the building code because Raffa isn't a certified building inspector. Raffa was ordered to stop doing inspections immediately.

A Town DividedRaffa is a real-estate broker and developer in his private life. He bought a house near the water in Westbrook in 1994, but maintained a house in Rocky Hill until 2003. He never attended a public meeting and was completely below the public radar for 11 years in Westbrook - until the Republican town committee tapped him in 2005 to oppose two-term Democratic First Selectman Tony Palermo.

At the time, Raffa also was a Democrat. He switched parties, officially becoming a Republican in September 2005, about two months before the election.

Westbrook was a town divided. Voters had rejected a string of budget proposals; pro-education and anti-tax factions were at each other's throats; and the anti-tax group Save Westbrook had begun a powerful anti-Palermo movement.Raffa had to do very little campaigning and parlayed Save Westbrook's anti-incumbent sentiment into an election victory.

"Save Westbrook vehemently opposed me," Palermo said.

"They did all the dirty work for him."Republican leaders were happy to let Save Westbrook and Palermo slug it out.

"You don't step in the middle of a bar fight," said Sidney Holbrook, a former top aide to former Gov. John G. Rowland who is now chairman of the Westbrook Republican Party.

Holbrook said Raffa ran because "he wanted to bring harmony and integrity back to a town divided by budget issues."

"It's unfortunate things have turned out the way they have," he said.

"But people should not jump to the conclusion that because he's been arrested, or because the newspaper editorial says he should go, that that's necessarily the case. I've been around long enough to know it's not."

Raffa has refused to step down from his Westbrook post, a full-time job that pays $58,000 a year, and there is no state law or local regulation that would require him to, nor is there any recourse for the voters. At a brief appearance in Superior Court in Middletown last week, he said through lawyer Jeremiah Donovan that he plans to take the case to trial, a process that could span his entire two-year term.

Raffa refused to be interviewed for this story.

`We Trusted This Man'

"Let each man exercise the art he knows," says the write-up under Raffa's 1966 Rocky Hill High School yearbook picture.

Even then, the high school graduate, who was described in the yearbook as having "a mind of his own," wrote that he was interested in politics, and wanted to be a real estate agent.

In the class will, where others wrote of leaving behind items to the school, Raffa said he was leaving "to see his grandfather," with whom he was very close.

In 1990, he named the main road through his Whispering Woods development Speno Ridge Road, in honor of his grandfather, John Speno.

Raffa's foray into local Rocky Hill politics began as a Republican in the late 1970s when he was appointed to the planning and zoning commission and elected as a constable. He made an unsuccessful run for town council but was drafted by the GOP in 1981 to run for mayor.

Although he lost the mayoral race, he garnered enough votes to win a tumultuous two-year seat on the town council. Later, he switched to the Democratic Party.

Those who know Raffa best say John Speno may have had a hand in molding Raffa's strong-willed and often brazen persona. A well-known landowner who was considered smart, outspoken and bold, Speno, who died in 1983, saw himself as the "godfather" of the close Italian family that lived on Parsonage Street.

Friends said Speno clearly favored his young grandson, who could usually be found at Speno's side, and said it was not surprising that Raffa followed in his footsteps by pursuing real estate and development as a career.

But there were missteps along the way.

The 1994 backhoe incident left the Hummels shaken.

"When we first met him he was nice and polite, the way people are when they want your business," said Cheryl Hummel.

"We trusted this man and that was a big mistake."

Hummel said after the confrontation, Raffa would call the house and leave threatening messages on the family's answering machine. She and her husband ended up footing the $5,000 bill for removing the construction trash and landscaping the yard.

"I'm not surprised at what is happening to him now," she added.

In the early 1990s, Raffa accused Rocky Hill cable TV host Ed Peruta of stealing a $500 donation Raffa had made to the cable-access station. Raffa's claim became part of a police investigation into allegations of fraud against Peruta. No wrongdoing was ever found. Peruta sued the police department and the town in federal court, and won $35,000 in 1995.

On Feb. 17, 1999, Raffa was arrested by Rocky Hill police and charged with threatening another contractor. He was not convicted, and no public record of the case remains.

In 2003, when the planning and zoning commission found problems with the work and pulled the remaining bond on his Whispering Woods development, Raffa spewed profanities at commission members. He would complain regularly during public portions of council and planning and zoning meetings that the planning and zoning staff did not know what they were doing.

"I've had complaints from staff," said Rocky Hill Town Manager Barbara Gilbert about Raffa, who, she said, has never confronted her.

"He knows better."

Raffa had some personal struggles. He divorced twice, and failed to repay his late aunt, Virginia Speno, a $300,000 loan, according to probate records. The son of Elizabeth Speno Raffa, a revered woman in Rocky Hill who died in January, Raffa eventually became estranged from his family. His brother, Thomas Raffa, declined to comment for this story.

Some people were embarrassed or repelled by his aggressive temperament; others admired him for his blunt, direct approach and his drive as a businessman.

"There were times when he would say things and I would want to just crawl under the table," said Donald Unwin, a longtime Republican council member and former mayor in Rocky Hill who served on the town's governing body with Raffa.

"He was the kind of guy who had a short fuse, was passionate and opinionated," Unwin added. "He would publicly disparage employees, and it occurred enough times that I finally said something to him. We locked horns at one point, probably because of his style, and he left the party."

In contrast, Councilwoman Barbara Surwilo found Raffa's "in-your-face style" engaging.

"In my view he is an honest man, a strong man. He had a reputation as a tough businessman and a man who took care of his finances," said Surwilo, a Democrat and former mayor who also served on the planning and zoning commission.

"I would trust John," said Surwilo, a longtime family friend who said Raffa became estranged from his family after some property it owned was given as a gift to his brother.

Raffa recently married for the third time.

Concern Is GrowingThe difference between Raffa in his freewheeling Rocky Hill days and Raffa now is that as Westbrook's chief administrator his demeanor and behavior never mattered more.

In a town of 6,655 that is trying to overcome budget problems, disappointing school test scores and an image that is less glossy than its wealthier shoreline neighbors, Raffa's actions have sabotaged his own reform efforts and inspired more suspicion than confidence in town government.

Though he still has the support of Holbrook and the Republican leadership, a growing number of Westbrook residents, including some Republicans, are feeling angry and betrayed.

"People are proud to be from Westbrook but frustrated and disappointed. Now, when you say you're from Westbrook, wherever you turn, people say, `What's going on in your town?'" said resident Christopher Ehlert, a Democrat who has been active on town commissions.

Some townspeople are worried that the felony charges, the mounting scrutiny of Raffa's interference with the building inspection process and his tendency to question projects linked to the previous administration will jeopardize state grants and town services.

For example, Westbrook learned in November that it had been granted $45,000 by the state to furnish and equip a kitchen in the town's new senior center. The project to transform the basement level of town hall into a senior center was initiated and largely completed during Palermo's administration. Four months later, Raffa's office has yet to send back to the state the paperwork that would release the grant for the kitchen work.

In November, he declared invalid a temporary certificate of occupancy issued for an addition to the middle school in August. Lawrence Lariviere, chairman of the school building committee, was troubled by Raffa's action, which he suspected was politically motivated.

"That was a valid and legal TCO. The committee knew it, the construction manager knew it. The only thing the committee can think of was that John Raffa was trying to say that the former administration, Tony Palermo, had put kids in an unsafe building. We'd never do that, and we didn't do it. This was a political thing," said Lariviere, a Republican who has helped oversee $50 million in school projects for the town.

There is no organized movement to express dissatisfaction with Raffa. Westbrook has an ethics statement that bars town officials from benefiting financially from their positions, but, unlike many communities, there's no ethics board to hear complaints.

"We know he's legally entitled to keep the job," said Marilyn Ozols, the Democratic town chairwoman.

"There's more and more concern on the part of the townspeople about whether he has the ability to effectively lead the town under these circumstances."

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing for sure, that Barbara Surwilo from Rocky Hill is a real nutjob!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007 2:06:00 PM  

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