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RI firefighter sues city over alleged assault by deputy chief

Scott Bergantino filed suit alleging that Deputy Chief Paul Valletta Jr. assaulted him by punching him twice in the head and slamming him against a whiteboard


By Katie Mulvaney
The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A Cranston fire lieutenant is the suing the city and the firefighters' union after the deputy chief allegedly punched and slammed him while on duty in September, because the lieutenant had refused to participate in a "Fill the Boot" fundraising campaign.

Scott Bergantino filed suit in U.S. District Court, alleging that Deputy Chief Paul Valletta Jr. assaulted him by punching him twice in the head and slamming him against a whiteboard on Sept. 9. Bergantino charges that Valletta breached his duties to Bergantino as president of the Cranston Firefighters International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1363, by leaving him no avenue with which to file a grievance against him.

He also accused the city of negligence for failing to properly train supervisors, such as Valletta, in anger and stress control. A 2004 video captured Valletta yelling and advancing toward then-Mayor Stephen Laffey. Bergantino is seeking unspecified damages.

"I think the city had an obligation to provide a safe work environment for my client, Mr. Bergantino," Chip Muller, his lawyer, said.

"He does not feel safe going back to work for Mr. Valletta," Muller said. "Firefighters have to trust each other." Bergantino, who suffered a concussion in the incident, remains on unpaid leave, he said.

On Dec. 8, District Court Judge Elaine T. Bucci found Valletta, 59, guilty of disorderly conduct in the incident, but acquitted him of simple assault. He has appealed his conviction to Superior Court.

According to the lawsuit, Bergantino, a firefighter since 1994, was working at the station at 1155 Scituate Ave. on Sept. 9, when Cranston Firefighter Michael Burke called on behalf of the union and told the firefighters they had to participate in the "Fill the Boot" fundraising campaign. Firefighters aimed to raise money for muscular dystrophy research by asking drivers for donations at stop lights.

The fundraisers are not work and are not sanctioned by the City of Cranston, particularly as the City Council passed an ordinance banning panhandling earlier in the year, the suit states.

"Mr. Bergantino believed that it was in bad taste for firefighters to ask citizens for money as Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida — just days after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, displacing tens of thousands of people from their homes," wrote his lawyer Chip Muller.

Bergantino told his crew that they wouldn't take part in the fundraising effort that day. Valletta called an hour later to ask Bergantino if they would be participating in the "Fill the Boot" campaign, to which Bergantino said no.

Valletta instructed Bergantino to get his crew together and hung up, the suit says. Valletta arrived at the station and told Bergantino's crew that they should participate in the fundraising drive and criticized Bergantino publicly.

Bergantino asked Valletta why he hadn't given him overtime shifts in recent weeks, in keeping with the firefighters' contract and Fire Department procedure and tradition. He asked Valletta who he should file a union grievance with to complain about Valletta refusing him overtime. Valletta replied "`me!'", showing contempt for his union duties, according to the suit.

Valletta began provoking and yelling at Bergantino; an argument ensued. It's then that Bergantino says Valletta lurched at him, slammed him against a whiteboard, punched him twice in the head and then pushed him over a chair and onto the floor, where he hit his head.

Firefighters yelled to Valletta to stop and pulled him off Bergantino. Valletta then yelled "`Don't worry. I'll run into you again,'" the suit says.

Bergantino told Chief William McKenna about the assault, but the city allowed Valletta to continue working an overtime shift nonetheless, the suit says. The next day police arrested Valletta and charged him with disorderly conduct and simple assault.

On Sept. 11, Cranston Personnel Director Daniel Parrillo placed both men on paid administrative leave. Valletta was not to have contact with Fire Department employees while on leave, but ran a union meeting that same night, the suit says.

Parrillo conducted meetings with with more than 20 firefighters, claiming it was part of his investigation into Valletta's assault on Bergantino, the suit says. In the lawsuit, Bergantino accuses Parrillo and union executive board member Dean Brockway of conspiracy for encouraging a witness to change his statement to police to make the city and Valletta less culpable.

"The problem is, typically, when someone is promoted [to deputy chief], he usually leaves the union," Muller said. In this case, Valletta continued as the elected union president, leaving Bergantino no way to file a grievance against him, Muller said.

"It seems like a conflict of interest to me. It's not good for the union, It's not good for the membership. It's not good for the city," Muller said.

The city declined to comment on the case as it is pending litigation.

Copyright 2017 The Providence Journal

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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