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Monday, April 14, 2008

Allegations of favoritism stall controversial tow program

By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— City Hall Friday halted its controversial Plate Hunter program after learning that the Rev. Boise Kimber, two state marshals and city Tax Collector C.J. Cuticello were involved in canceling tows for politically connected scofflaws.
Kimber, a fire commissioner and pastor at First Calvary Baptist Church, owed $350 in unpaid parking tickets when the Plate Hunter spotted his white GMC Yukon next to a fire hydrant outside Portofino’s restaurant on State Street at 8:45 p.m. Wednesday.
Towing operator Lombard Motors called parking enforcement officer Velisha Cloud at City Hall to authorize the tow, said Michael Piscatelli, director of transportation, traffic and parking.
But before Lombard could tow the SUV, state Marshal Peter Criscuolo, North Haven Democratic Town Committee chairman and North Haven fire commissioner, intervened.
“Our understanding is although they started to tow the car, it was stopped, and the car was released, and that was inconsistent with the tow authorization,” Piscatelli said. “The owner of the car engaged the tow truck company, the marshal, and through that exchange, the car was released.
“The marshal used poor judgment in this case,” he said.
It was not an isolated case.
Tuesday night on River Street, tow trucks prepared to haul away a car owned by prominent city businessman Marc Suraci. But before towing operators could hook the car onto the truck, a conference call between Marshal Mike Deangelis, Cuticello and Kimber took place, and the tow was called off, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said.
“This is unacceptable and unfair to the taxpayers of this city,” DeStefano said Friday. “There needs to be absolute fairness in this process and we will take sufficient time over the next several days to ensure this.”
Suraci could not be reached for comment.
The Plate Hunter program has been suspended through April 23 while city officials investigate the possibility of further similar incidents, and review towing policies with staff.
“I don’t believe you can conclusively know what happens out in the neighborhoods. We’re not with these individuals with cameras to know that. That said, we’ll make every reasonable attempt to ascertain whether this is more than just two incidents,” DeStefano said.
“I’ve asked traffic and parking to re-document all our procedures as to how these things are called in and confirmed, to make sure that the sheriffs and tow operators and staff in the tax and traffic offices clearly understand the policies of the city,” DeStefano said.
Criscuolo was “verbally reprimanded” but remains on the job. DeStefano said he discussed the case with Cuticello and considers the matter closed.
Kimber refused to comment on the case Friday. City spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said he paid all but $30 of his outstanding parking tickets Friday. The Yukon is registered to First Calvary Baptist Church, according to DMV officials.
Kimber’s appointment to the Board of Fire Commissioners expires February 2011.
“There is a provision under the charter under which he could be removed for malfeasance, which involves a Superior Court process. I don’t know if this rises to the occasion,” DeStefano said.
Criscuolo remained unapologetic Friday. “I’m not apologizing for what I did. It was a judgment call I made,” he said.
“We err on the side of caution. If we know where the car is going to be tomorrow or the next day, it’s not like we have to take that car today,” he said. “If I know that I can come tomorrow to your office, your house, to take that vehicle, there’s no need to dispute back and forth and waste time. I don’t have to punish you. It’s not like we’re in the middle of a war zone. I know where you are, I’ll come tomorrow ... if you’re telling me the tickets were paid.”
A witness who asked not to be named claimed the incident lasted an hour, with Kimber and Criscuolo coming in and out of Portofino’s numerous times. Eventually, Criscuolo drove Kimber’s car to the lot behind the restaurant, the witness claimed.
“All the people in the restaurant and bar were watching it like a show,” the witness said.
Former West Haven Mayor H. Richard Borer also had a view of the scene from his table at Portofino.
“There were no antics, no banging on the hood. It was gentlemanly. He walked back in and sat down. ... (Kimber) had his napkin from dinner in his hand,” he said.
Elizabeth Benton can be reached at 789-5714 or ebenton@nhregister.com.

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