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Rizzitelli’s Testimony Continues In Housing Discrimination Case

by Eugene Driscoll | Aug 11, 2010 12:00 pm

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Posted to: Derby

Sam Rizzitelli was under the microscope again for about four hours Tuesday in federal court in Bridgeport, where an attorney peppered him with questions regarding a downtown housing project for people with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Home Inc. and the Valley Housing Limited Partnership are suing the City of Derby and building inspector David Kopjanski in a housing discrimination lawsuit.

Read our previous stories here, here and here.

The agencies allege that Derby officials tried to thwart a plan to renovate three apartment houses on Caroline and Fourth streets and lease them to clients of Birmingham Group Health Services in Ansonia. Derby denies the accusation and claims the agency wasn’t upfront with their plans.

The agencies are suing the city for some $800,000.

Rizzitelli was called as a witness because in 2004 and 2005 he was a city Alderman, the chairman of the Derby Zoning Board of Appeals and chairman of the city’s Democratic Town Committee. He authored a ZBA denial of the Home Inc. application. That denial was later overturned in Superior Court.

Rizzitelli was questioned Tuesday by attorney David Rosen.

Rosen repeatedly asked questions about statements Rizzitelli made in a 2007 deposition related to the case. At the time, Rizzitelli said he could not recall many details of the application, any controversy surrounding the application or what the Birmingham Group is or does.

He changed many of those statements from the stand Tuesday, saying he had gone back and read meeting minutes posted on the Derby section of the Electronic Valley, Derby’s unofficial website.

On the stand last week, Rizzitelli testified that he had no idea as to concerns from constituents about the project.

FILEHe changed that statement Tuesday, saying that reading meeting minutes from the ZBA meetings triggered his memory.

There was some opposition in the neighborhood about the project, he said.

“I do recall discussions from people about drug users, or something about drug users being involved,” Rizzitelli said.

In fact, a resident had talked about the possibility of crack addicts moving into the neighborhood, Rizzitelli said.

Rosen’s line of questioning tried to establish a conflict of interest among the many hats Rizzitelli was wearing in 2004 and 2005. He questioned whether an Alderman, faced with concerns from constituents about crack addicts moving into his ward, could then perform his duty as a non-biased member of the ZBA.

“If someone thinks there are going to be crack addicts living in the neighborhood, that’s a serious concern?” Rosen asked.

“It could be,” Rizzitelli answered.

He said later, “As a member of the Board of Aldermen, I would have been concerned about crack addicts, yes.”

Rosen questioned whether his role as an “aggressive” political player in Derby also colored his role as ZBA chairman.

Rizzitelli said he wouldn’t use the word “aggressive,” preferring “active” to describe his past role in city politics.

Rizzitelli said there were elected officials in Derby who were against the Home Inc. project, including then-Mayor Marc Garofalo, City Treasurer Keith McLiverty and then-First Ward Alderman Sherry Pflugh. Rizzitelli testified that Dominick Thomas, then a member of the city’s Democratic Town Committee and an attorney working for Home, Inc., was in favor of the project.

However, Rizzitelli said that he was able to rise above any political pressure while on the ZBA.

“I rose above any politics . . . we followed the code,” he said.

Local officials against the project were “against the way it was being proposed,” Rizzitelli testified.

Rosen zeroed in on the relationship between Garofalo and Rizzitelli. Rizzitelli testified that he spoke to the mayor several times a week on the phone and saw him at various city functions.

“During the hundreds of conversations, Mayor Garofalo let you know that he was opposed to the proposed project?” Rosen asked.

“He may have expressed something like that to me,” Rizzitelli said.

“Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t?” Rosen asked.

“That is correct,” Rizzitelli answered.

Upon further questioning, Rizzitelli testified that “Marc Garofalo may have said something about this project in passing. We never spent any deliberate time on this at all.”

Rizzitelli said the mayor thought the project should have been presented openly.

“The city . . . I am trying to remember this . . . The city should have a right to know about this project,” Rizzitelli said.

Rosen questioned Rizzitelli’s statement that he had never heard of Birmingham Group Services.

He gave Rizzitelli a 2005 Connecticut Post article about the project. The article stated that officials were concerned the project would concentrate people with mental health issues in one area in Derby. The article stated the tenants would be clients of Birmingham Group Services.

The article also quoted Rizzitelli.

Under questioning, Rizzitelli said he probably read the article when it was published.

However, when he reads newspaper articles, he said he skips to his quote, to make sure he wasn’t misquoted or that he didn’t say anything that sounded stupid.

“I may have seen the words Birmingham Group Health Services. It would not have translated into what they do,” Rizzitelli said.

Rosen asked whether the article raised concerns about drug addicts moving into the neighborhood.

“I’m not sure I thought back then this project meant drug addicts,” Rizzitelli said.

Rosen asked whether drug addicts were a “scary thing.”

“I really wasn’t afraid of it,” Rizzitelli said. “I had very little focus on anything outside the zoning code.”

Rizzitelli said he had heard talk about crack addicts as tenants, but assumed crack addicts would not be moving in.

The statement confused U.S. District Court Judge Tucker L. Melancon.

“Who did you think would be there?” the judge asked.

“Just people. Just people connected to whoever was putting them in there,” Rizzitelli answered.

Rizzitelli’s testimony was scheduled to continue Wednesday.

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