Thursday, June 06, 2013

Airport manager suspended, pending probe into driveway purchase: Sikorsky Memorial Airport (KBDR), Bridgeport, Connecticut

Sikorsky Airport Manager John Ricci. 
(Photo: CT Post/ Phil Noel)

By Brian Lockhart,  Connecticut Post

Updated 12:18 am, Thursday, June 6, 2013  

BRIDGEPORT -- Just before hanging up the phone Wednesday morning, Sikorsky Airport Manager John Ricci admitted he had business dealings with multi-millionaire developer Manuel "Manny" Moutinho.

Thanks in part to Ricci, Moutinho is enjoying a just-opened $400,000 gravel driveway to his mansion overlooking Long Island Sound in Stratford, courtesy of Bridgeport taxpayers -- and he was hired to build it.

By 5 p.m. Wednesday, Ricci was suspended with pay from his $94,000-a-year job, and Mayor Bill Finch's administration was scrambling to investigate his relationship with Moutinho, who is also the target of an FBI probe in Trumbull.

Records filed with the Bridgeport town clerk and tax assessor offices show that Ricci and Moutinho engaged during 2012 in a handful of property transactions -- some in mid-summer, while Ricci and the Finch administration were deciding to build Moutinho's driveway so they could begin long-sought safety upgrades at Sikorsky Airport, located in Stratford but owned and run by Bridgeport.

Hours after the Connecticut Post, which first reported on the $400,000 driveway Monday, asked the mayor's office what it knew about Ricci and Moutinho, the mayor announced a probe and suspended Ricci.

"Today is the first time we have been made aware of any such alleged association," Finch said in an emailed statement early Wednesday evening. "Obviously, this newly disclosed information creates the potential for a conflict of interest or inappropriate behavior. As is our longstanding established policy, all such allegations are thoroughly investigated internally, and where appropriate are referred to other proper legal authorities."

It was an abrupt change of tune for the administration. On Tuesday, City Attorney Mark Anastasi, in a letter to the editor, insisted the Connecticut Post was fabricating a controversy about the city's hiring Moutinho's Mark IV Construction to build a 1,000-foot driveway for the developer and three neighboring property owners living near Sikorsky Airport.

"The truth is that the contract was awarded legally and properly and the driveway construction was a requirement to move forward with the necessary safety zone for the airport," Anastasi wrote. "There is a level of trust that residents have in their government, and false attacks like this one can have a damaging effect on that trust."

On Wednesday morning, Ricci initially refused to discuss what he called private matters. He eventually acknowledged he had unspecified business dealings with Moutinho, but added that the administration knew about the situation.

"I made that clear to the airport commission and city attorney's office," Ricci said.

According to property records filed with the town clerk, in February 2012, Ricci sold Moutinho property at 1483 through 1489 Boston Ave., for $150,000. In June of that year, Moutinho sold other lots on Boston Avenue to Ricci for $220,000.

The tax assessor's files show that Ricci bought a house at 1491 Boston Ave. from Moutinho in July.

Ricci was also named as a co-defendant in a January 2011 lawsuit filed against him by Phoenix of Bridgeport Lien Investors LLC over a home he owns at 76 Porter Street. Other defendants included Eric Moutinho, trustee for Baldwin Station, LLC, which shares Mark IV Construction's business address of 1137 Seaview Ave. Bridgeport's Water Pollution Control Authority was also a defendant.

Ricci has also conducted business through limited liability corporations like Cima Contractors and Quince Realty.

Moutinho is well-known in Bridgeport City Hall. He has been engaged in various legal battles with the city, but he and his family also contributed a combined $4,500 to Finch in 2007 and 2008.

Moutinho is also facing an FBI investigation into claims that he built a defective sewer system in Trumbull. The town and developer are suing each other.

Former Bridgeport Councilman Bob Walsh, a Democrat like Finch and all 20 current council members, said neither Ricci's dabbling in real estate nor his dealings with Moutinho should be a surprise to the powers that be.

"For the people in City Hall to say they didn't know about it, they've either got to have their heads in the sand or be lying," Walsh said. "They're throwing John under the bus. If John says he told people, he told people."

But Council President Thomas McCarthy, D-133, who also serves on the airport commission, insisted he does not recall Moutinho's name ever being associated with the Sikorsky runway work.

During a private council meeting Monday night, McCarthy sought to reassure his colleagues there was nothing amiss about the $400,000 driveway, which the council might have voted to fund without realizing it early last fall.

But on Wednesday, McCarthy said, "The information that I'm hearing today is causing me great concern."

It was uncertain Wednesday how Ricci's suspension and the driveway probe will affect Bridgeport's efforts to install a $40 million safety zone at Sikorsky to meet a federally mandated 2015 deadline. The federal government is paying for 90 percent, with the state and city splitting the balance.

Ricci and Lisa Trachtenburg, the associate Bridgeport city attorney assigned the airport project, in interviews last week portrayed the city's arrangement with Moutinho as crucial to moving forward.

For decades, the city has been legally bound to provide access through airport property to a handful of waterfront properties. That access took the form of an old dirt driveway, located off Main Street, across from Sikorsky's runway, which has become prone to flooding.

According to Ricci, a few years ago Moutinho decided to build a new driveway. He asked the airport commission to shift the easement rights to another location on airport property, farther east on Main Street, off Sniffen Lane.

Then last year, Moutinho received the appropriate land-use approvals from Stratford, but never broke ground.

In the meantime, the Finch administration was nearing a deal with Stratford, state and federal authorities that would finally allow the city to build a 300-foot safety zone at the end of Sikorsky's runway.

To do so, Main Street is to be rerouted through the original dirt driveway used by Moutinho and neighbors.

At that point, the Finch administration concluded that even though the city already granted Moutinho an easement to build a new driveway, essentially abandoning the dirt one, by law the city had to pay for it.

"I'm not allowed to take it away," Trachtenburg said. "I have to give them something else."

Ricci recalled approaching Moutinho with the city attorney's office about the offer.

"We went up and said, `We need to take it over. We'll build it for you just to get you out of our way,' " Ricci said.

And rather than a time-consuming bidding process, the city sought three quotes. Mark IV was the cheapest.

Last week, Ricci insisted that his only goal has been to prevent airplane crashes like the one in 1994.

"I helped bring the charred bodies out of the plane," Ricci said. "And I never want to witness human carnage like that again. Ever. So I will do whatever it takes."

Connecticut Post Staff Writers Anne M. Amato and Dan Tepfer contributed to this report.

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