PAWTUCKET — While the City Council is typically granted the information it asks for, the need to protect the anonymity of undercover police officers trumped a request for details about the purchases of vehicles made by the city administration outside of normal purchasing procedures.
In the wake of the investigation into retired Pawtucket Police Officer Kenneth Provost and his now- admitted theft of gasoline from the city garage, it came to light that he, as a licensed car dealer in Massachusetts, had bought and sold vehicles for the city for use by the Police Department for the past decade. At the last City Council meeting, several counselors had raised questions about this practice and said they wanted to hear more about it from the purchasing director and police chief.
On Wednesday, Purchasing Director David Clemente and Police Chief Paul King appeared before the council to speak about the practice that has been going on since 2002 and involves the Pawtucket-based car dealership, Leer’s Auto Sales. Both city officials said the practice had been implemented in order to protect the safety of the Special Squad officers and their families and to prevent any of the vehicles from being traced.
According to numerous sources in the city, Provost has a family connection to Leer’s Auto Sales. However, he has no ownership in the business.
King said the money used to purchase the vehicles comes out of a “seized vehicle account” in the city budget. He explained that when cars are confiscated from drug dealers, they go through the forfeiture process and are sold. The proceeds then go into this revolving account, which is used to purchase different vehicles for the undercover officers. He said the account currently has about $25,573 in it.
The chief said this had been done over the years through Leer’s Auto Sales, where the cars would be purchased at auction. He said these vehicles were only those used by the Special Squad, and noted that 42 other unmarked vehicles that are currently assigned to members of the Police Department were procured through the normal purchasing methods.
King added that he could not provide the City Council with the individual makes and models of the cars because then the information would be part of public record, and the cars would be rendered useless. He said he felt “absolutely” that measures such as these must be taken to ensure the cars cannot be traced back to any Special Squad officer.
Clemente noted that the practice of buying the cars through Leer’s dates back to 2002, when the previous mayor, police chief and purchasing director came up with a “three signature” sign-off system. He said that no money was taken up front as a commission, but when the Police Department was finished with a vehicle and wanted to sell it, the dealer would take a commission on the sale. He added that Leer’s was considered “a trusted partner” by city officials.
Clemente said that since 2010, six cars had been procured in this manner, the last one in February. He said, however, that since the issue came to light, the Grebien administration is tightening the process, requiring an additional signature and an electronic purchasing system that will record the date and time of the transaction.
Clemente also said that an RFP (request for proposals) will soon be going out seeking bids for a dealership or body shop to represent the city at auctions when additional undercover vehicles are needed.
The City Council seemed satisfied with the explanation and agreed that the safety of the undercover officers should not be compromised. City Councilor Thomas Hodge also noted that Leer’s Auto Sales, which had been mentioned on numerous occasions in the discussion, “has not done anything wrong” and said the administration was simply tightening up the vehicle purchasing procedure.
Council President David Moran commented that while there had been some “bad” that came out of the situation regarding Officer Provost, “maybe some good will come out of it.”