Correction, April 26: Colin Hosten.
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk citizens have been threatened by a lawyer for speaking out at public meetings.
An attorney representing The Grasso Companies sent an intimidating email Tuesday to the Village Creek Homeowners Association, VCHOA President Colin Hosten said at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting. The attorneys ordered the group to “immediately cease and desist with further improper efforts to undermine Grasso’s business,” according to Diane Lauricella.
“I am self conscious because of an email I received from the applicant’s attorney here today instructing me to refrain from addressing the Common Council,” Hosten said, standing at the lectern in the Council chambers at the beginning of the meeting. “The effect of the letter was intimidating but really not as intimidating as the thought of a city contractor choosing to interact with Norwalk residents in such a threatening way. I think that alone tells you all you need to know about the kind of company you are dealing with here.”
Multiple Village Creek residents, though not Hosten, have spoken at previous Council meetings to ask that the city not award a paving contract to The Grasso Companies LLC. Grasso was given the $3.4 million contract in April.
The rub here is that the residents were complaining about Zoning violations by The Original Grasso Construction; The Grasso Companies is a separate entity, owned by Joe Grasso, Jr., not his father, who has been the recipient of many complaints.
The Grasso Companies LLC was on the Council agenda Tuesday for an $827,000 contract to do concrete sidewalks and curbs in various locations.
Lauricella, who is working as a consultant to the Village Creek Homeowners, did most of the talking about the threatening email. She began by asking the Council to deny the contract or to table it back to the Public Works Committee.
“I think that the right of citizens to express their opinion about vendors that are utilizing and will be paid by public funds is sacrosanct. I know most of the Council believes that. I ask that your actions match what I know that your hearts and minds you believe in, if that was you,” Lauricella said.
She said she was authorized by the Association to read a portion of the letter, which she called, “a bullying tactic to scare people silent.”
“Joe Grasso Jr. and Grasso have made significant efforts to fortify relationships with neighbors and the community,” the letter began, going on to say that Joe Grasso Jr. has offered to speak to citizens personally, according to Lauricella.
“‘It has come to our attention that the Village Creek Homeowners Association, otherwise known as VCHOA,’ which is an acronym, ‘led or instigated by outside interests that are not even homeowners or association members is utilizing your resources and organization of the VCHOA to take action that may constitute tortuous or intentional interference with Grasso’s business relationships and contracts by making false and unsupported statements to the Mayor and the Common Council,’” Lauricella said, reading the letter to the Council.
The letter, according to Lauricella, alleged that Grasso’s private clients have leveraged lower prices from the company by referencing the press coverage of the disparaging comments.
“VCHOA is fabricating a smear campaign to put political pressure on Norwalk’s Common Council to deny Grasso public contracts,” the letter continued, according to Lauricella. “You are intentionally organizing members to voice concerns with Grasso, notwithstanding the fact that the members have suffered no harm or damages and lack any personal knowledge of the veracity or truth of what they are representing. We believe this is actionable.”
Lauricella said that the attorneys quoted a sentence from a mailer that went to Village Creek residents this weekend: “There is still time for people to be heard with phone calls, letters and attendance at the Common Council meeting this Tuesday, 7:30, during the public participation of the meeting.”
Lauricella’s account of the letter went on:
“I would remind you that in Connecticut a ‘tortuous interference with business relations claim’ simply requires the existence of a business relationship, an intentional and improper interference with that relationship, and a resulting loss of benefits with the relationship. Consider this email correspondence formal notice to immediately cease and desist with further improper efforts to undermine Grasso’s business. If you have further issues or complaints you can contact Joe Grasso Jr. as he has offered. However, we will not tolerate false and misleading testimony from your association and we are prepared to take steps to protect Grasso’s legal interests.”
She went on to express her own opinion, not reading from the letter.
“This kind of tactic speaks a lot to the city’s ability not only to vet and have the discretion of a responsible bidder, but if you approve this tonight I ask that we have an immediate investigation of why you have been told that you have to approve this tonight,” she said.
The Council unanimously voted to table the contract to the next Council meeting, without comment.
Council President John Igneri (D-District E) explained why after the meeting.
“The recent development of the letter from their lawyer to the Village Creek Association raised questions that we didn’t have answers to. So we decided to send it back to counsel, the next Council meeting, so we can get answers,” he said.
Lauricella declined to forward the attorney’s email to NancyOnNorwalk, saying that the homeowners association had not authorized it.
One Village Creek resident spoke to the Council in opposition to the sidewalk contract.
“We have had more noise violations in early morning hours,” Teresa Petersen said, qualifying the account with an assertion that police don’t always issue tickets.
“It’s been several times since the last contract was awarded,” she said.
Those complaints stem from the company owned by Joe Grasso, Sr., a source said.
Department of Public Works Director Bruce Chimento said after the meeting that there have been no complaints against The Grasso Companies LLC since the paving work began.
Deputy Zoning Inspector John Hayducky said on June 6 that there have been no new zoning violations on Grasso Jr. since the paving began.
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