Nearly two months after a Hummel Report investigation raised questions about why the vice president of the Johnston Town Council was sending her triplets to Narragansett High School - and whether she and her husband were entitled to a homestead tax exemption in Johnston, the verdict is in. Officials in both communities launched their own investigations based on our report. It’s a split decision for the councilwoman, but as Jim Hummel found out this week: the case may not be over.
To read the town solicitor's memo click here.
To read the letter from Manzi's lawyer click here.
To view Manzi's tax bill/exemption click here.
Click here to watch our original report.
Our report seven weeks ago prompted two separate investigations into Johnston Town Council Vice President Stephanie Manzi, who told us her 16-year-old triplets had been attending Narragansett High School since August of 2014.
The superintendent of the school system began gathering information to see if Manzi’s husband, Paul - was, in fact, a resident of Narragansett and whether the children lived with him in this 784-square foot cottage on Ocean Road. If so that would allow them to continue to attend the high school.
At the same time, Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena asked his solicitor, William Conley, to determine if Manzi was improperly receiving a homestead exemption after our report showed she had signed a notarized form stating that neither she nor her husband, who jointly own this house in Johnston, claimed residency in any other town. Councilwoman Manzi told us in our interview that her husband was a resident of Narragansett even though they were not divorced or separated.
Polisena: ``I know it took a couple of weeks, but sometimes, you know, my solicitor does his due diligence, it wasn’t made a quick willy-nilly decision and here’s the decision.’’
Polisena told us this week Conley advised that - based on his research - the Manzis were not entitled to the homestead exemption, which gives residents a 20 percent break on their property taxes.
Polisena: ``As you can see the report is lengthy it’s probably over 100 plus pages.’’
In a 7-page memo, with dozens of pages of supporting documentation, the solicitor also said that according to the Homestead Recertification that Manzi voted for as a councilwoman and signed as a resident last year, she would have to repay the town with penalties and interest.
Polisena: ` There’s no double standards in my administration, we would have done this for anybody else whether it be elected official or not. There were a lot of people out there, Jim I know that thought it was going to get pushed under the table. We don’t do that here. Whether you like me or not, okay, I may be a lot of things, but one thing this administration is, is honest, we don’t have any double standards here. We treat everybody equally and fairly. So they can eat the words now because as I said we don’t do things like that here. That’s the old Johnston.’’
The town’s tax assessor calculated that Councilwoman Manzi would have to reimburse the town $1,765 for the homestead exemption she received, including interest and penalties.
In the meantime Manzi has hired an attorney, who sent Conley a letter taking issue with his memorandum to Mayor Polisena. We asked Manzi whether she planned to go to court to appeal the removal of the homestead exemption. She did not respond to us directly, but her attorney said his client cannot make a decision until she’s received a formal decision from the town. The town provided her with the same document a week ago that the mayor provided us on Tuesday.
Polsena: ``If you, obviously, break the law, it doesn’t matter if you’re an elected official, a council member, state senator, state rep, we don’t tolerate that.’’
Meanwhile, the superintendent in Narragansett, Katherine Sipala, said her legal counsel advised that any appeal of an adverse residency ruling against the Manzis to the Department of Education would focus on their living arrangements now and going forward - and not any evidence we uncovered leading up to our report in March. Right after our report aired Paul Manzi changed his voter registration from Johnston to Narragansett.
Supt. Sipala told us that documents provided by the Manzis show that Mr. Manzi is living in the cottage with his three children, although they acknowledged the children had been in Johnston because Councilwoman Manzi has had some health issues and Paul Manzi, who is a police officer at Rhode Island College, had a work schedule that didn’t allow him to get to Narragansett some nights, so the children stayed in Johnston. And sometimes we saw the councilwoman staying in Narragansett.
She also said the bus driver confirmed seeing the students taking the bus and that Mr. Manzi said he planned to put an addition on the cottage.
That means the triplets, who are finishing their sophomore year will continue to be allowed to attend Narragansett High School at a cost to local taxpayers at just shy of $60,000 a year. But the school department will continue to monitor the situation.
After our story ran in March, The Hummel Report was contacted by some faculty members at Roger Williams University, where Manzi is the Dean of the Justice Studies Department. The faculty we spoke with wanted to know if the university planned to take any action, given our findings.
President Donald Farish told The Hummel Report this week that quote: ``the allegations are pretty serious.’’ He added that the university plans to do its own investigation concerning Dean Manzi.
Back in Johnston the mayor said he believes removing the homestead exemption is an adequate penalty.
Hummel: ``I had some people approach me and say, they have handled cases where if somebody signs a form in front of a public official and it’s notarized, and it’s false information, why aren’t they being prosecuted criminally?’’
Polisena: ``That’s a good question, you know once again, even if it was Jim Smith or Mary Jones, I don’t want to put people in jail - you don’t want to do that. That’s something where…I don’t get any satisfaction out of trying to prosecute someone criminally. As long as they pay back to what they owe, and adhere to the rules, and they lose the homestead, I’m satisfied.’’
In Johnston, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.