The Hummel Report

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(Another) Communication Breakdown

Six years after a Hummel Report investigation found issues with taxpayer-funded cellphones for Providence City Council members, a new review finds many of the same problems. Excess minutes, directory assistance calls, data overages and the purchase of new phones often double or triple the monthly costs. The council president, who ordered his own review earlier this year, says: that’s about to change. Jim Hummel has a follow-up investigation.

 

Click here for our 2012 report.

SCRIPT:

 

Among the many things city council members have to do, keeping up with their constituents is near the top of the list. And in Providence, the taxpayers foot the bill for a cell phone to do so if an elected official wants one.

The Hummel Report spoke with several council member about their city cell phone use for an investigation we did six years ago.

Matos: ``My phone is my office.''

Jennings: ``If there's any emergency in my ward, or an emergency in general, they can always have access to me and get in touch with me.''

Hassett: ``It gives you the flexibility and it's also an efficient way to communicate.''

And that hasn’t changed.

Our investigation in 2012 showed that one councilwoman, Carmen Castillo, had racked up hundreds of dollars in calls to and from her native Dominican Republic, prompting her to reimburse the city for more than $800. The council president at the time said it might be a good idea for council members - who never see their monthly bills - to start reviewing them.

But that never happened - and when David Salvatore became council president in January he ordered an audit of all city council expenditures, specifically why some contracts over $5,000 were not going through the Board of Contract and Supply, as required by the city.

Near the top of the list: money the city was spending on council members’ cell phones. Twelve of the current 15 council members have a city-issued phone. Salvatore is not one of them.

Salvatore: “So the first question I had was why isn’t this process going through the Board of Contract and Supply. Why are we picking a vendor, a wireless cell phone vendor based on that information alone.”

Hummel: “And did anybody have an answer to that question?”

Salvatore: “No.”

Salvatore directed the council staff do a deeper dive into the cell phone expenditures.

Salvatore: “I found it striking that city council members never receive their cell phone bills. So there’s no check and balance between the council member and the amount of time they’re using their  phone for city business and the dollars that are being spent for those individual accounts.”

The Hummel Report conducted its own review of bills from the past three years. The city uses two carriers: T-Mobile and Verizon, but each has differing services: one with data limits but unlimited calling minutes, the other vice versa. While the total base cost is about $750 a month the bills are typically double or even triple that, with extras like excess minutes, directory assistance calls, data overages. Not to mention purchases of new - expensive - phones.

 Salvatore: “Issues such as telephone equipment upgrades. This is starting to be a habit, and I understand council members want to have the latest and greatest model in terms of new technology. However at $600 a pop that tends to add up. You ran a story several years ago around international calls being made from taxpayer cell phones and here we are several years later having that same conversation. So my question would be why are international phone calls being made using taxpayer cell phones. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me so I think we have a responsibility to taxpayers to find out why this is happening and to mitigate it moving forward.”

Our most recent review shows that Castillo logged $500 in extra charges during a two-week trip to the Dominican Republic this past June. She tells the Hummel Report constituents were calling her while she was away.

And John Igliozzi, the chairman of the council’s Finance Committee had 140 minutes of international calling show up on his bill, at a cost of more than $400,  while he was on vacation in 2017. Igliozzi says he was finalizing the budget while out of the country.

If it was city business, the council president says, the council could negotiate a temporary international plan if it knew the members were travelling, at a much lower cost.

Salvatore: “I think in the grand scheme of things these are de minimus amounts of taxpayer money, but when we’re asking folks to step up in leadership capacities and take on very difficult and challenging financial matters, how  can they lead in that capacity while dropping the ball in matter such as contracts and wireless cell phone spending.”

Going forward Salvatore is directing his staff to have council members review their bills each month and confirm that all of the usage  is city-related. They will be expected to reimburse the city for any personal use.

Hummel: One of your predecessors in that story I did six years ago said ‘You know that would be a good idea to have people look at the bills.’ Did that ever happen?”

Salvatore: “Apparently not, but moving forward, I promise you and the taxpayers of Providence that each member of the city council will receive their cell phone bill, in addition to having a staff member in the city council office review that bill to make sure there aren’t abuses in terms of the usage and that council members are using those wireless phone.”

Councilwoman Sabina Matos is poised to succeed Salvatore as president in January. He is hoping she will continue the new policy about to be implemented. Matos told us she isn’t sure why Salvatore is pushing the issue, but didn’t have a problem with the new policy.

Salvatore said he will hold her to that statement.

Salvatore: “I am concerned that if there’s a change in leadership that these individuals, who were in leading capacities prior to my presidency will now take the reins and this oversight that I’ve been pushing for and advocating for now with several of my colleagues for several years is going to fall by the wayside. If the city council decides not to adopt an internal policy around this issue I think that warrants a conversation around changing the city council rules again - the city law department doesn’t govern our rules, however I’ll also have a conversation with our city solicitor about this.”

In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.