A defiant mayor in a defaulting city

Urban Affairs
By MALCOLM BURNLEY  |  July 6, 2011

It's been a year since the state appointed a receiver to take control of a nearly insolvent Central Falls and Mayor Charles Moreau, reduced to a mere figurehead, rides shotgun in a blue Chevy Impala — surveying all that he's lost.

Broken glass covers beat-up grass, busted trash bags scatter debris across yards, and tilted fences are covered in the spray-painted tags of a local gang, MSR — the Main Street Rugrats — nicknamed the "Main Street Retards" by Moreau.

On Dexter Street, police Colonel Joe Moran — Moreau's childhood friend and unofficial chauffeur — steers past a cardboard sign, propped up by candles and Hennessy bottles, commemorating the victim of a drive-by shooting three years ago.

"I got a call one night at 11:30, saying 'Chuck, you got to come down,'" Moreau says. A 16-year-old had been shot three times in the chest with a .357 magnum; the second teenager killed in as many days.

Weeks later, he instituted a 9 pm juvenile curfew in the city, the first of its kind in the state, locking up teenagers temporarily in the maximum-security Wyatt Detention Facility. "It's kind of unconstitutional," Moreau says, "but the parents and police love me for it."

Unconstitutional, but popular. It could serve as an epitaph for Moreau's entire mayoralty.

A native son of undeniable charisma, he's enjoyed broad support in the city — racking up a series of lopsided victories at the polls. But his flaunting of the law has landed him in all kinds of trouble.

State police are investigating him for corruption after he allegedly doled out $2 million in inflated foreclosure board-up contracts to an associate, Robert Bouthilette. And the mayor also stands accused of accepting an improper gift — a dirt-cheap boiler in his home — from the contractor.

But he is defiant. "It's been going on for two years," he says. "If you've got something on me, then charge me. I'm here. Come get me."

That bravado, it seems, is part of the problem. "The state police see Chuck as cocky and arrogant," says Moreau's older brother Frank. "He will tell them: 'I'll have your effing badge.'"

"The scandal has been very damaging to the family name," he says.

Nowadays, Moreau moonlights as mayor, devoting the majority of his time to MGM Realty, the company he started in 2004 with Frank and a college friend. He helps flip houses, re-model depressed property, and sell converted condos throughout the Blackstone Valley.

But it is politics — and, in particular, the rule of the state's all-powerful receiver — that consumes him. "There is one voice and one person telling everyone else what to do now," he says. "That's not democracy. It's Libya. It's Mohmar Qaddafi."

Moreau plans to run for a fifth term in 2013 whether the city remains in receivership or not. He is already campaigning.

The Impala pulls up to Wilfrid Manor, a seniors home, where Moreau mingles with the residents at their monthly Dixie-plate dinner.

"You ought to go back to the nuthouse, where you belong," Moreau tells Stella Sweet, a spunky 90-year-old who has known him for 16 years, playfully criticizing her attempts to get a rise out of an elderly man.

When the mayor takes a seat at an adjacent cafeteria table, Sweet whispers, "I'll still vote for him, but some people don't want him here."

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