Christopher Maselli, a former state senator from Johnston who spent two years in federal prison for bank fraud, has been working on behalf of the state judiciary over the past year as a bail commissioner. The discovery of his criminal record brought a swift reaction from several of the communities where he has been working.

A former state senator who spent two years in federal prison on bank fraud charges has been working on behalf of the state judiciary over the past year as a bail commissioner.

In that capacity, Christopher B. Maselli has conducted arraignments for several local police departments and the Rhode Island State Police when the courts are closed, with the authority to set bail, serve restraining orders and sign arrest warrants.

Maselli, a state senator for two terms until his arrest in 2010, was appointed by — and serves at the will of — District Court Chief Judge Jeanne E. LaFazia, who was aware of his criminal record when she chose him in September 2017. The position is not advertised, and each bail commissioner's fee is paid in cash by the defendant who appears before him, with no accounting of the money by the court.

Leaders in several of the communities where Maselli has been sitting as a justice of the peace — the official title of a bail commissioner — were unaware of Maselli’s background until The Hummel Report notified them over the last two weeks. The discovery of his criminal record brought a swift reaction: Johnston and the state police dropped Maselli from their bail commissioner rotation lists immediately, and the mayor in Cranston plans to contact LaFazia with his concern about Maselli.

“The Rhode Island State Police was not aware of Mr. Maselli’s background,’’ state police spokeswoman Laura Meade Kirk said in a statement. “We do not select bail commissioners, nor do we have any role in vetting their backgrounds. They are selected by the courts. Based on the information we have now learned about Mr. Maselli’s criminal record, Colonel Ann C. Assumpico decided the Rhode Island State Police will no longer use his services — effective immediately.”

 "The perception is just awful,” said Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, who was succeeded by Maselli in the Senate when Polisena left to run for mayor in 2006. “People are going to say, ‘Oh yeah, [Maselli] was a Johnston senator; now he’s working for the Johnston Police Department.’”

Polisena said he received an anonymous call a month ago from someone asking why the town had hired Maselli. “I said, ‘We didn’t hire him.’ The person said: ‘He works as a bail commissioner for the town of Johnston.’ I said, ‘That can’t be possible. I’m the one [as public safety commissioner] who knows who gets hired.’”

Polisena confirmed the information with his police chief, Richard Tamburini, then ordered the chief to stop using Maselli. “I think I have the right as a mayor to decide who’s going to come into the town. I know technically he’s representing the court, but perception-wise he’s representing the town also.”

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, in a statement, said: “The District Court appointment of Mr. Maselli to serve as a bail commissioner is deeply troubling. This role acts as an extension of the courts and deals with law enforcement. We believe it is inappropriate for him to serve in this role after being convicted of bank fraud.”

Fung, through a spokesman, added, “We will be expressing our concerns to Chief Judge LaFazia and ask her to reconsider Mr. Maselli’s appointment as a bail commissioner.”

LaFazia declined to be interviewed.

Court spokesman Craig Berke said in an emailed response to half a dozen questions: “Chief Judge LaFazia believes that public officials cannot simply give lip service to initiatives such as justice reinvestment, re-entry programs and second chances without putting our money where our mouth is. He is competent and professional, and she has never received a complaint about him in his role as a bail commissioner.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Suttell, who oversees the court system, supports LaFazia’s decision to appoint Maselli, saying the reinstatement of an attorney is not taken lightly, and comes only after extensive investigation and references. “An attorney who is reinstated must be on a level playing field, with all the responsibilities expected of and opportunities afforded to other attorneys,” Suttell said.

Maselli, a real estate lawyer, was in his second term as a state senator from Johnston when he was arrested in 2010 by federal authorities and eventually charged with eight counts of bank fraud. The indictment said that between June 2007 and March 2009 Maselli, a self-employed attorney, inflated his annual income dating to 2005; lied about personal assets and submitted phony and altered bank statements and tax returns when applying for mortgages, a home-improvement loan and an auto loan. In all, Maselli obtained six mortgages on residential properties in Johnston and North Providence, and an auto loan. 

Maselli admitted to obtaining a total of more than $1.7 million in fraudulent loans and to having a relative serve as a straw borrower for one home. After resigning his Senate seat and voluntarily giving up his law license, Maselli petitioned the federal court to impose a one-day sentence, with five years suspended and eight months' home confinement for charges that carried a maximum 30-year prison sentence and $1-million fine.

U.S. District Judge Mary M. Lisi rejected that request and sentenced him to serve 27 months. Maselli was released Feb. 21, 2013.

Maselli successfully petitioned the Rhode Island Supreme Court to reinstate his law license in June 2016. “Disciplinary Counsel [David D. Curtin] has not uncovered any information, other than the petitioner’s conviction, that reflects adversely on his current fitness to return to the practice of law,” the decision said. “We do not believe that conviction constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to his resumption of the practice. Accordingly, we hereby grant the petition for reinstatement.”

Berke, on behalf of LaFazia, noted “that Mr. Maselli has served his full sentence and that he was never subjected to an order of restitution, as none of the lenders had suffered a loss at the time of sentencing.” Berke’s statement to The Hummel Report mirrors the wording the high court used in its decision.

John Mahoney is the Town Council president in Scituate, one of the communities Maselli is assigned to cover. Mahoney, a former police officer, said: “It strikes me as a political move. Bottom line, if John Mahoney did 27 months in federal prison for X, Y and Z, would I be elected to the Town Council? The answer is no. Would I be allowed to navigate my way or play a role in the justice system? No. Do I believe in second chances for an individual? Absolutely, but a second chance to what capacity? In society overall, but certainly not in the judicial system.”

Berke wrote: “If there was a substantive complaint, she [LaFazia] would not hesitate to remove him or any other bail commissioner. At the same time, if a police chief or chief executive of a city or town (mayor, administrator, manager, etc.) has an issue or is uncomfortable with a particular bail commissioner, Chief Judge LaFazia would make a change. ‘It’s their house, and I respect that,’” he quoted her as saying.

Maselli is one of 51 bail commissioners assigned to cover the state when the courts are not open. They work in rotations and districts, divided by court jurisdictions: Newport, Kent, Washington and Providence counties. Their fee is $50 — and up to $200 when a hearing takes place between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. It is a cash transaction between the bail commissioner and the defendant, but there is no way to determine how much they make, as the court does not require them to report the income.

Bail commissioners confirm a defendant’s name, address and date of birth when presented by the local police department. They set bail for all new charges other than a capital offense, which requires a defendant to be held without bail. They follow bail guidelines set by the court but have the authority to exceed the guidelines if they want to, with an explanation to the court. And they set a court date for a defendant to officially answer to the charges before a judge.

Maselli has been “on call” every six or seven weeks in Cranston and Johnston. He was also one of seven bail commissioners on a rotation for the state police.

Maselli told The Hummel Report last month that he sees his appointment as a bail commissioner as "a service to the community,” noting that sometimes he does not get paid for his work. For example, if a probation violator is arrested, brought before him and ultimately sent to the Adult Correctional Institutions, the bail commissioner does not collect a fee, even though he has to conduct an arraignment and turn in paperwork to court the next morning.

“Since I’ve been back [from prison], I’m just trying to mind my own business, give back to the community a little bit, if I can help out certain people for free,” Maselli said. “I think I’m qualified; I was admitted to the court back in 1999. I’ve had some personal problems, but everybody deserves a second chance. The [state] Supreme Court decided I was deserving of my license back. I think anybody deserves a second chance. If you look at the court system, the court system is full of giving people other chances.”

Maselli said LaFazia was aware of his criminal background. “I disclosed everything to the court. The court knew.”

John Marion, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Rhode Island, said a critical component of the court system in Rhode Island is trust, and appointing a felon sends the wrong message.

“The court system in Rhode Island suffered from terrible abuses back in the ’80s and ’90s, and there were significant reforms because of that,” Marion said. “We don’t want to backslide at all. The courts operate very much because the people trust the authority of the court. You want to see the courts operate in the most forthright way, because trust is so critical to the legitimacy of courts.”

Marion said he is concerned that bail commissioners are paid in cash with no accounting for the money, and he is particularly troubled by the optics of someone holding this position after being convicted of bank fraud.

“If you look at other systems, they try to minimize cash because they don’t have a good paper trail. You don’t want cash floating around, in this case in the middle of the night, because it’s difficult to trace.”

Central Falls Police Chief James Mendonca, who doubles as president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, said last week he is conflicted about Maselli being appointed a bail commissioner. In light of Maselli’s appointment, he plans to bring the issue up with the state’s chiefs.

“I’m a second-chance guy,” Mendonca said. “If people are able to dust themselves off and get back on track, everyone should get a second chance — to a limit. The issue is not that he’s got his license to practice again, I don’t have a problem with that. But if he is a judge, even though he hasn’t been confirmed, he acts in that capacity. I think the fact that he actually served prison time for bank fraud, it’s a felony, it’s not a misdemeanor, it’s a serious crime. Serving in that capacity, it is concerning.

“I think if you ask any police chief or mayor, if they were honest with you, they would probably say they have some reservations,” Mendonca added.

The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to HummelReport.org. Reach Jim at Jim@HummelReport.org.