A former state senator who spent two years in federal prison on bank fraud charges has been working on behalf of the state judiciary over the past year as a bail commissioner, often paid in cash with no accounting from the courts. While the District Court Chief Judge who appointed him defends her decision, a Hummel Report investigation has brought a swift reaction from the communities where he has been serving and the colonel of The Rhode Island State Police.
When the District Court is not open for business, bail commissioners are called in to arraign people arrested by the police.
A rotation of seven bail commissioners covers the cities of Cranston and Johnston. It includes Christopher Maselli - a familiar name in Johnston because he served two terms as a state senator - then served two years in federal prison on bank fraud charges from 2011 to 2013.
Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena says he got an anonymous call a month ago about Maselli.
Polisena: “He said to me: ‘Nice you have a convicted felon working for the police department.’ I said ‘are you serious’? He said ‘I’m telling you…’ I thought it was a police officer he was talking about. He said ‘Maselli - your former senator is working for the police department.’ I said ‘pal, you’re dead wrong. You don’t know what the heck you’re talking about.’”
So the mayor asked his police chief if Maselli was working for the department.
Polisena: “He said ‘no, but he’s a bail commissioner, he’s on the list.’ How can he be on the list? I checked with Billy Conley, my solicitor and I said ‘do we have to keep him on the list if we don’t want to?’ The optics are, he’s a former Johnston senator, he was a convicted felon. It just doesn’t look good for the town and of course for the police department.”
The Hummel Report has learned that Maselli is one of 51 justices of the peace - the official name for bail commissioner - across the state who are chosen by - and serve at the pleasure of - District Court Chief Judge Jeanne LaFazia.
Maselli was able to get his law license back two years ago and was appointed as a bail commissioner in September of 2017. The job is not advertised and there is no formal application process.
Judge LaFazia declined our request to be interviewed, but a court spokesman responded to a series of questions we asked.
“Chief Judge LaFazia believes that public officials cannot simply give lip service to initiatives such as justice reinvestment, re-entry programs and second chances without ‘putting our money where our mouth is.’”
Polisena said he believes in second chances but the optics of this situation - having a convicted felon acting as an arm of the District court, are horrible. And, he said, it doesn’t reflect well on the town.
Polisena: “He was a Johnston senator. Many people are cynical - and they have the right to be cynical by the way in this state, people are upset. And it would all fall on my shoulders: I didn’t hire him, technically, so why should I have to endure the criticism of people coming in here and saying why did you put him there, and I didn’t. I just feel the optics, the perception, whatever you want to call it, just didn’t look right.”
The mayor told the chief to drop Maselli from the rotation.
Polisena: “ So I said just go on to the next person. I said if he’s on call that evening, or day, you gotta go on to the next person. You can’t do that.”
Polisena is not alone. The police in Cranston have been using Maselli, but that may be changing soon.
Mayor Allan Fung in a statement said: “The District Court appointment of Mr. Maselli to serve as a bail commissioner is deeply troubling. This role acts as an extension of the courts and deals with law enforcement. We believe it is inappropriate for him to serve in this role after being convicted of bank fraud. We will be expressing our concerns to Chief Judge Lafazia and ask her to reconsider Mr. Maselli’s appointment as a bail commissioner.”
A similar reaction came from a spokeswoman for the Rhode Island State Police:
“The Rhode Island State Police was not aware of Mr. Maselli’s background. We do not select bail commissioners, nor do we have any role in vetting their backgrounds. They are selected by the courts. Based on the information we have now learned about Mr. Maselli’s criminal record, Colonel Ann C. Assumpico decided the Rhode Island State Police will no longer use his services – effective immediately.”
Marion: “These jobs are patronage jobs, so they are given out by the chief judge of the District court, they’re not something that has a public vetting process that you would apply for.”
John Marion is the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, a government watchdog group.
Marion: “If you’re going to hire someone for a job that involves the public trust, it seems like you wouldn’t hire somebody who has gone to federal prison in the last decade for bank fraud. This is giving him the ability to exercise power on behalf of the state of Rhode Island. There are thousands of lawyers in this state who could have been chosen for this? Why him? Why somebody who has gone to federal prison in the last decade for a pretty significant sentence?”
By law, bail commissioners are paid in cash by the defendant - anywhere From $50 to $200 depending on the time of day or night, with no accounting of the money by the courts. Marion said that’s something that needs to change.
Marion: “It’s always worrisome about cash transactions. If you look at other systems they try to minimize cash because you don’t have a good paper trail. So, for instance, in the campaign finance system you can’t give a cash donation more than $100. You don’t want cash floating around, in this case in the middle of the night because it’s difficult to trace.”
Maselli he told us that he saw working as a bail commissioner as a way to give back to the community and that he sometimes doesn’t get paid, for example if a defendant is sent to prison.
“Since I’ve been back [from prison], I’m just trying to mind my own business, give back to the community a little bit, if I can help out certain people for free. I’ve had some personal problems, but everybody deserves a second chance. The [state] Supreme Court decided I was deserving of my license back. I think anybody deserves a second chance. If you look at the court system, the court system is full of giving people other chances.”
Marion: “The court system in Rhode Island suffered from terrible abuses back in the 80s and 90s and there were significant reforms because of that. We don’t want to backslide at all. The courts operate very much because the people trust the authority of the court.”
Polisena: “It just doesn’t look right and I think it’s just very inappropriate.”
In Providence, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.