Racial slur claimed on tape of firehouse incident

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The president of the NAACP’s Providence branch has alleged that the nominee to become the next chief of the Cranston Fire Department can be heard using a racial slur on an audio recording of a firehouse incident, while the mayor has pushed back against that assertion.

On July 3, Jim Vincent appeared on Gene Valicenti’s WPRO program to discuss his allegation, which relates to a recording of a September 2017 altercation between Valletta and Lt. Scott Bergantino at Fire Station 6 on Scituate Avenue.

Vincent said he listened to an unedited version of the recording – which has previously been played in court and has been leaked to WJAR – and heard the slur “pretty much clear as a bell.”

“I heard it, I heard [the recording] twice. I didn’t have to hear it several times … clearly, about a minute and 24 seconds into the version that I heard, I heard the N-word mentioned,” Vincent told Valicenti.

He added: “I’m kind of disturbed by that because, I know there was an incident at the Budlong Pool, and there was some kids from Providence and there was a fight and whatever, and I guess the N-word was being used. And Mayor Fung said, you know, that word would not be tolerated … And I applaud him for that. I agree with him in terms of the fact that the N-word should not be used by anybody. So with that being said, I think the mayor now should look at this person that’s being proposed as a chief to reconcile what the standard is and what the chief said.”

On July 3, Fung issued the following statement:

“On several occasions, including multiple times this morning, I have listened to the entire unedited 6:20 recording that was played in court, and have not heard the utterance of the N-word. There has not been one mention of what is now being alleged, either during the testimony in the criminal trial, during the city’s administrative investigation or in any of the civil depositions related to this incident. Finally, I’ve had multiple people in my office listen to the tape this morning, and no one hears what is being alleged. In fact, when those I asked to listen to the tape, who previously hadn’t heard it, did so, each heard the word ‘names’ and not the N-word.”

The mayor’s statement continues: “As the chief executive in this diverse city, and a former criminal prosecutor, I take all issues of racial bias very seriously. I am willing to listen to anyone at any time and if anyone has further evidence I will wholeheartedly consider it.”

Valletta’s attorney, James Kelleher, told WPRI that he was “flabbergasted” by Vincent’s allegation. He described it as “outrageous” and “character assassination.”

On July 3, WJAR NBC 10 shared an unedited version of the portion of the audio clip in question on YouTube. The clip contains a number of expletives, but Herald staff members did not hear a racial slur after multiple listens.

Valletta, a 35-year veteran of the Cranston department, is president of Cranston IAFF Local 1363 and a lobbyist with the Rhode Island Association of Firefighters. He became the department’s assistant chief in April following the departure of Bernard Patenaude, who was named fire chief in East Greenwich.

Valletta’s nomination to succeed William McKenna – who retired as fire chief effective July 5 – received the unanimous support of the City Council’s Finance Committee on July 1. His appointment is scheduled to go before the full council on July 22.

After the September 2017 incident, Valletta was accused of punching Bergantino and was charged by Rhode Island State Police with simple assault and disorderly conduct. He was suspended following the incident and returned to duty in October 2017.

Valletta was acquitted of the simple assault charge and found guilty of disorderly conduct, although that ruling was later disposed of during an appeal. Bergantino remains off duty and has filed a federal lawsuit against Valletta and the city, which is still pending.

Citywide Councilman Steve Stycos – who does not sit on the Finance Committee and did not vote on July – said he plans to oppose Valletta’s nomination due to the incident.

Vincent and Valletta were both appointed to the city’s new Diversity Committee, which is focusing specifically on diversifying the membership of Cranston’s Police and Fire departments.

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