PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — The federal bribery case against prominent developer Richard Baccari rests on taped conversations of a known liar, a former North Providence town councilman who is currently in prison for corruption, Baccari's lawyer told a jury Wednesday in closing arguments.
Baccari and his company, Churchill & Banks, are charged with bribery and conspiracy for allegedly paying a $50,000 bribe to several councilmen to get approval for a zoning change to build a supermarket.
"The only evidence in this case is the taped conversations of John Zambarano," defense lawyer Anthony Cardinale said. "We know he's a liar."
He then ticked off the lies Zambarano told in the wiretap recordings made by another town councilman, who was acting as a confidential FBI informant in the case, including telling the informant he had received $25,000, rather than $50,000.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney John McAdams said the government has far more evidence against Baccari than just Zambarano's word. McAdams held up a bag containing $4,000 cash Zambarano gave to the confidential informant, then-Councilman Paul Caranci, as his cut of the bribe.
"He paid the money to get the votes," McAdams said.
The jury began deliberations Wednesday afternoon.
Prosecutors say the conspiracy began in October 2008, when Baccari offered Zambarano a $25,000 bribe in return for him delivering four votes on the seven-member council to approve the zoning change. Caranci got wind of the scheme and went to authorities, then agreed to work with the FBI to help them investigate. He asked Zambarano to let him in on the scheme, and Zambarano agreed. Two other councilmen, Raymond L. Douglas III and Joseph Burchfield, then the town council president, also were in on the conspiracy.
In February 2009, the council approved the change and Baccari's then-lawyer, Robert Ciresi, gave the money to Zambarano. In 2010, the councilmen and Ciresi were charged in the scheme. The councilmen pleaded guilty the following year to conspiracy, extortion and bribery. Ciresi went to trial and was convicted of conspiracy, bribery and extortion. All four are serving prison terms.
In closing arguments, the prosecutor himself called Zambarano a convicted felon, a bribe taker and a liar. But he asked the jury to focus on what Zambarano said several times on the wiretap recordings — that Baccari had met with him in his office alone and told him he would pay him $25,000 if he delivered four votes.
"He had the motive to pay it. He paid it, and you know it," McAdams told the jury.
Sitting at the defense table, Baccari occasionally shook his head and raised his eyebrows as McAdams spoke about his alleged role in the scheme.
Cardinale argued that his client was a victim of the scheme, and faced the prospect of losing money on his project if it was not approved.
"The payment was made. The question is why was it made?" Cardinale said.
He told jurors if they're not sure that Baccari was coerced, that he deserves the benefit of the doubt.