WOONSOCKET — A threatened lawsuit against the Place Jolicoeur war memorial’s location on city property sparked a controversy last year that rankled local veterans groups and spurred a fundraising drive that included the selling of replica white crosses still found at many homes around the city.
The potential for a legal challenge of the monument originally created to honor city resident William Jolicoeur following his death in France during World War I came in the form of a letter to the city from Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) in the spring of 2012.
The monument includes a white soldier’s cross, commonly found in military cemeteries, atop a concrete foundation also bearing a dedication plaque. The names of three city brothers, Alexandre, Henri and Louis Gagne, all killed in battle during World War II, were added to the monument during a 1952 redesign.
The FFRF letter challenged the monument’s location on public property that became part of the city’s Fire Department headquarters on Cumberland Hill Road following the flood of 1955 and asked that it be removed.
Fontaine and members of the state’s veterans’ community organized a rally to kick off the defense effort in May 2012 that resulted in strong local support and a steady stream of donations into a city-managed account.
But with the departure of former mayor Leo T. Fontaine from City Hall this month and the arrival of his replacement, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, questions have surfaced over what happened to all the money raised for the monument’s defense fund.
City Councilman Robert Moreau said he attempted to find out exactly how much money was in the defense fund with questions directed to City Hall, and finally received the answer recently that a total of $23,135 had been collected for the legal defense.
The answer to his next question, how much of the donated money remains in the fund, was a little more troubling for Moreau.
It turns out that lawyer Joseph Larisa Jr., a city special legal counsel under the Fontaine administration, billed the fund $9,806 for legal services in connection with the monument’s defense.
What troubled Moreau was the fact that as of Monday, no actual legal case concerning the monument’s location had ever been filed in court.
Moreau noted, however, that Larisa did move forward with preparing a case for the city’s arguments even in the absence of a suit. The FFRF said earlier this year that it was still concerned about the monument’s location but had not been able to find a local plaintiff willing to publicly pursue the case in court.
“The $9,806 bill was for preparing a defense in case we were ordered to take it down,” Moreau said.
The nearly $10,000 bill to the defense fund was tallied at a charge of $170 per hour for 58 hours of work “on what I am at loss for,” Moreau told his peers on the council. Larisa did note in the billing that he had not charged the fund for the time he spent attending the rally put on for the monument.
The billing was enough of a concern for Moreau to say he will ask Mayor Baldelli-Hunt to look into the matter further. He also asked that the account set up to hold all the donations for the monument’s defense be closed for now and taken offline from the website where donations can be made.
“We shouldn’t be taking any more money until we know what happened,” he said.
Baldelli-Hunt said she also was concerned about the billing for legal services, especially since there had been offers from other lawyers at the time to provide legal counsel to the defense at no cost.
Larisa had indicated himself that he would “defend the city at almost no cost” when he was given the work by the past administration, Baldelli-Hunt said.
“Now he has taken the fund from nearly $24,000 to $14,000,” Baldelli-Hunt said. The mayor said she plans to have her City Solicitor Michael Marcello see if the concern over Larisa’s billing can be addressed.
Larisa on Wednesday disputed the concerns raised over his billing and indicated that it was in fact a discount on the services actually rendered, and also a worthwhile expense in defending the monument from a potential legal challenge.
The hours of research into the monument’s history uncovered facts about the creation of Place Jolicoeur that not been considered in decades, according to Larisa. It also revealed the story of Woonsocket Gold Star Mother Bernadette Gagne, who had lost her three sons during World War II, a loss prompting a private veterans group in 1952 to pay for the creation of a suitable monument to them at the site of William Jolicoeur’s World War I memorial.
“This mother lost three of her children in the war, and instead of crawling into a hole she spent her whole life helping out veterans,” Larisa said.
Larisa became involved in the legal matter when Fontaine decided he was going to take the steps necessary to protect the monument, even if it amounted to a court battle.
Although not offering free legal work, Larisa said he did say “I would do it at a very significant discount, which I did.”
Fontaine established the defense fund as one based solely on donations and not including any city funding, Larisa noted. The fund was boosted by support from area residents and veterans attending the initial rally at the monument, and also from a showing of the media presentation Fontaine held later at the Museum of Work and Culture. That event alone raised several thousand dollars for the fund, Larisa said.
Larisa did not bill for his attendance at the rally or the media presentation, and also reduced his total of 78 hours of work on the case to 58 hours, the resulting discount, when he submitted his billing.
Rather than waiting for a legal challenge to be filed in court, good legal work often involves doing the initial research to determine if a challenge has merit, according to Larisa.
The research into the history of Jolicoeur Place would show a legal case challenging it as a proper war memorial to be “baseless and near frivolous,” he said.
The information collected by Larisa, and also Fontaine, was used in a letter responding to the monument concerns sent to Rebecca S. Markert, the attorney representing the FFRF in the Place Jolicoeur matter, in August 2012.
Given the potential for the city to have to pay the legal costs of a challenge were it to lose in court, Larisa argued the cost of doing such research in advance was money well spent.
“So I am rather surprised that they are criticizing the amount of the bill in light of what was accomplished,” he said.
The defense fund still has the $14,000 remaining for any additional expenses related to the monument, and Larisa said Mayor Fontaine had viewed those funds as potentially helping with the refurbishments of war memorials throughout the city.
When contacted in Wisconsin on Wednesday, Markert said she has been away from the office on leave for the past three months, but added that the Woonsocket memorial does remain a concern for the FFRF. She also maintained that Larisa’s communications regarding the case have not had an impact on FFRF’s decisions in the matter.
“We are still considering it and it is on our list of potential cross cases to litigate,” she said. The FFRF has similar concerns over the location of religious crosses on public land in other states such as California and Oregon, she said.