PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — Gloria Tejada thought she could trust state Rep. Carlos Tobon.
So when the lawmaker approached her in 2020 about an unusual business deal, Tejada agreed to the idea, partly out of gratitude for how Tobon’s family had helped her husband when he immigrated to the United States years ago.
But within six months, Tejada wanted out — and now she has a warning for others who might consider doing business with the fourth-term legislator.
“Don’t pay attention to him,” she told Target 12 during a Zoom interview last month from Colombia. “Please, please. Be careful because the promise he gives never completes, so if he approaches for money – don’t pay attention.”
A monthslong Target 12 investigation has discovered Tejada is only the latest in a long line of people — many of them immigrants — who say they got burned doing business with Tobon. Many of the disputes have played out while the Pawtucket Democrat, first elected in 2014, has been serving in the General Assembly.
In an interview, Tobon acknowledged mistakes but insisted that he never sought to deceive anyone. “They will say they are victims, and so will I,” he told Target 12. He added, “I’ve trusted a lot of these individuals, as well, and I’ve believed in them. Unfortunately, if some people don’t get their way, they become malicious as well.”
As part of the investigation, Target 12 examined more than a thousand pages of land records, court filings, campaign documents and business contracts involving Tobon, who helps craft the $13 billion state budget as a member of the powerful House Finance Committee.
The investigation reveals:
• Tobon has racked up tens of thousands of dollars in personal debt, which he’s repeatedly failed to disclose to the state Ethics Commission as required by law.
• Tobon has been hauled into court at least seven times since 2016 for allegedly failing to repay money he owed; just last month, a judge ordered him to pay a debt of over $45,000 dating back 17 years.
• Tobon has helped incorporate a string of LLCs that had their registrations revoked for not filing annual reports; one was fined by the state for operating without a license.
• Tobon has consistently listed his home address on official forms as 30 Bloomingdale Ave., but he actually lives at a different property in his district.
Presented with a summary of Target 12’s findings, Tobon insisted voters in Pawtucket and across Rhode Island could still trust him to help craft policy at the State House. He cast himself as a typical entrepreneur who has suffered setbacks and done what he had to do to survive.
“I think that in part tells the story of America, where somebody gets up and gives it a try,” he said. “When you give it a try there’s risks, there’s a high likelihood you may not make it. And I’ve done that for 20 years. Just tried.”
Just a few hours after Target 12’s report aired, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi announced that Tobon would no longer serve on the House Finance Committee.
“After watching the two reports tonight on WPRI and reading the online story, I had a conversation with Representative Carlos Tobon,” Shekarchi, D-Warwick, said in a statement. “I asked for, and have received, his resignation from the House Finance Committee and its subcommittees, the ARPA Task Force, and his position as a deputy majority leader.”
Shekarchi also addressed another of Target 12’s findings — that a part-time lawyer for the House, John Manni, had represented Tobon in one of his private court disputes.
“I will be instituting a new policy, effective immediately, stating that staff attorneys can no longer represent any legislators in their private practices,” Shekarchi said.
Also Thursday night, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea deleted a Facebook post praising Tobon that she had put up last month. “The voters of Pawtucket deserve better leadership,” said Dana Walton, a spokesperson for Gorbea, who is also a Democratic candidate for governor.
“Nellie is disturbed and disheartened by the reports and allegations — they deserve a full investigation by the relevant authorities,” said Walton. “It is particularly concerning that the report indicates that Rep. Tobon’s actions took advantage of vulnerable members of our community and that he has misrepresented his residence for election purposes.”
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‘Second to none’
Tobon, a 40-year-old Pawtucket native, first appeared on many Rhode Islanders’ radar screens when he lost one of the closest elections in recent memory.
In 2012, Tobon challenged veteran state Rep. William San Bento in the Democratic primary for House District 58. The results showed San Bento defeating Tobon by a single vote, 544 to 543, leading to weeks of controversy over a recount that went all the way to the R.I. Supreme Court. The court sided against Tobon.
Two years later San Bento retired, and Tobon won the seat. Pawtucket voters have re-elected him three times since then, and he faced no opponents in 2020. (Democrat Cherie Cruz on Wednesday announced plans to challenge Tobon this year.)
As a freshman lawmaker in 2015, Tobon landed one of the most coveted positions in the House — a seat on the Finance Committee, which helps determine billions of dollars in annual state spending. It was an early sign he was in the good graces of top House Democrats.
“As a member of the House Finance, I think I bring a different perspective — everything in life is not perfect, and I’ve dared to try things, I’ve dared to go out there and go out there and get dirty,” Tobon told Target 12. “And I’ve made mistakes and I’ve lost in between.”
House leaders have given Tobon more responsibility during his tenure. He is currently chairman of the House Finance subcommittee that oversees spending on the environment and transportation, and last year Speaker Joe Shekarchi appointed him as co-chair of a task force that examined how Rhode Island should spend $1.1 billion in federal relief funds under the American Rescue Plan Act.
Tobon’s profile is on the rise nationally, as well. Earlier this year he was named secretary of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, a Washington-based nonprofit that represents Hispanic lawmakers from across the country.
“His dedication to supporting and uplifting his community is second to none,” said state Rep. Karen Alzate, a fellow Pawtucket Democrat, after Tobon’s selection for the position.
But being a lawmaker is only a part-time job in Rhode Island, and Target 12 found Tobon has suffered a string of failures and other setbacks as he pursued his career in the private sector.
“I am the type of person that – I got out there – I’m willing to give it a try, I’m willing to get dirty, I’m willing to fight, and do what I have to do, and when I make a mistake, I own up to it,” Tobon said. “But sometimes owning up to it and being able to cover it at the time when someone wants — sometimes that’s hard.”
Tobon’s official legislative biography says he is “employed in the insurance industry,” and he has reported working for multiple insurance brokers on his Ethics Commission disclosure forms. But the secretary of state’s office has no record of any business registration for the employer he has listed since 2018, Tobon Insurance LLC. (He also serves in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.)
At the same time, Tobon has devoted much of his energy to a variety of real estate transactions, both as an investor and as a contractor. But those efforts have frequently ended with complaints of unpaid bills or unfinished work, leaving him with severely damaged credit.
Tobon suggested he could offer a reasonable explanation for each case. “I’m not out to be a malicious individual or take advantage of people,” he told Target 12. “I can tell you that. That’s why I’m here. I’m not running away from any of this.”
‘We are still waiting’
The oldest of Tobon’s ongoing financial disputes dates all the way back to 2005.
That year, Tobon borrowed $21,000 from a childhood friend, April Kuzdeba, at 12% interest. But years went by, and Kuzdeba still hadn’t been fully paid back. She finally filed suit against Tobon for the money at the start of 2020.
Superior Court Judge Kevin McHugh sided with Kuzdeba in April, ruling Tobon must pay her over $45,000 to account for interest over the 17-year term of the loan.
Last month, Tobon told Target 12 he planned to make a significant payment toward the debt. Kuzdeba’s lawyer, Michael Garland, said that still hadn’t happened as of Thursday, and estimated the money Tobon owes Kuzdeba is now approaching almost $50,000.
“A promise of a substantial payment was made two months ago, and we are still waiting,” he told Target 12.
Tobon pushed back at the suggestion that people need to take him to court in order to make him pay them back.
“It’s different taking care of a few thousand dollars compared to larger sums, and sometimes that’s when you need to get the court involved, just to sort of create the equilibrium,” he said. “But absolutely, these are things that I want to take care of. It doesn’t take you, Channel 12, or anybody for me to do these things.”
Tobon was defended in the Kuzdeba case by lawyer John Manni, who also holds a part-time position at the General Assembly as director of legal services for the House Judiciary Committee. The job comes with a taxpayer-funded salary of nearly $70,000 per year, according to payroll records.
The House was in session on the day last June when Manni accompanied Tobon to his deposition. Tobon didn’t show up for session later that day, according to the House journal, and it’s unclear whether Manni was working on State House issues.
Tobon said last month he hasn’t paid Manni any money for his legal work so far, and acknowledged he knew Manni through the State House. Manni did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
House spokesperson Larry Berman said Shekarchi didn’t know about the arrangement between Manni and Tobon before Target 12 asked about it.
“Speaker Shekarchi does not approve of the practice of staff attorneys representing lawmakers,” Berman said this week. “He was not aware that John Manni represented Rep. Tobon until the WPRI investigation, and he has since learned that this business relationship pre-dated his becoming speaker. He will be reviewing this practice and will make changes accordingly.”
‘Take me to dinner or something’
The Kuzdeba case wasn’t the first time Tobon turned to a State House connection for help with his legal troubles.
In 2017, Tobon was sued by the estate of the late Gregory Troy, who had loaned Tobon $7,000 two years earlier while Tobon was working for Troy’s East Providence insurance company. The money was supposed to be repaid within two weeks.
After Troy’s death in 2016, his brother, Andy Troy, discovered Tobon still hadn’t finished paying back the loan. Acting as executor of Gregory Troy’s estate, Andy Troy asked Tobon when he would see the money.
“He was very noncommittal about when he would make payments,” Troy told Target 12, adding, “I wasn’t going to let him get away with it. Ethically, I thought it was very poor taste to act like that.”
Tobon said Troy had loaned him the money to tide him over while he waited for his insurance commissions to come in, and said, “If Greg had not passed away, that wouldn’t have been an issue.”
Tobon turned to one of his colleagues, state Rep. John Lombardi, to help him deal with the Troy estate. According to Andy Troy, Lombardi told him Tobon would make good on the outstanding debt over the next six to eight weeks.
After receiving a handful of checks worth a few hundred dollars from Lombardi’s office over the next couple months, Troy said they returned to court, where he told the judge the estate was still short $500 from Tobon.
“That’s when Lombardi became unhappy,” Troy said. “He just started ranting for a minute, reached into his pocket and pulled out $500 in cash, hands it to me and says, ‘We’re done.’”
Asked about the Tobon case this week, Lombardi initially said he couldn’t remember it.
“I honestly don’t remember the case – I’d have to look it up,” Lombardi, D-Providence, told Target 12.
Pressed about why he couldn’t remember representing one of his colleagues from the House, Lombardi said he couldn’t discuss the case because he and Tobon “have a private relationship.” He declined to disclose any other details unless he received permission from Tobon.
“I can’t talk about that,” Lombardi said.
Asked how he paid Lombardi for his legal help, Tobon said, “John and I are great friends. I think we went to grab a bite or something, you know. I said, ‘John, how much do I owe you?’ He’s, like, ‘Take me to dinner or something.’”
‘Walked off the job’
At the same time that Tobon was wrangling with the Troy estate, he was also embroiled in a deepening conflict with the family of Julio Berroa, a first-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic who lives in Pawtucket.
Tobon first came to know the Berroas early in his time selling insurance, and he eventually sold them a policy to insure their multifamily home on Sterry Street.
Shortly thereafter, in May 2013, a fire broke out at the house, causing damage estimated at upward of $128,000. Tobon had recently registered a new building company, Solrac LLC, and after the fire the Berroas hired Solrac to do the repair work.
By 2017, Julio Berroa had grown so frustrated with Tobon that he filed a complaint against him with the R.I. Contractors’ Registration and Licensing Board, arguing in a letter that Tobon had “walked off the job” at Sterry Street without finishing.
“He would always work on the house a few days and then disappear for a few weeks, sometimes for months at a time,” Berroa wrote in the letter, which was reviewed by Target 12.
While Berroa later withdrew the complaint, state regulators still decided to look into Tobon’s company, and ultimately fined Solrac $250 in May 2017 for being a non-registered builder. The state fined the company another $100 the following January for allowing its insurance to lapse.
The Berroa family declined to be interviewed on camera for this report, and Tobon vehemently disputed Berroa’s version of events. The lawmaker argued he took the job as a favor to the family and couldn’t finish because the father was so difficult to work with. Berroa made so many change orders, the project became unrealistic and way over budget, Tobon argued.
“I had to do everything they asked me and much, much, much more,” Tobon said. “I lost a lot of money there. I put my own money there.”
Records reviewed by Target 12 show Tobon’s company, Solrac, cashed at least $89,000 in checks from the Berroas’ insurance company. And how that money was spent remains unclear.
In his letter, Berroa claimed he tried to obtain receipts for the work, but Tobon refused to provide them and didn’t show “proof of where the money has gone.”
When Target 12 asked Tobon if he’d kept any receipts from the project, which spanned several years, the lawmaker provided two invoices from contractors totaling about $3,700 combined. He also shared a PDF with a table listing more than $100,000 in additional costs. But that document doesn’t include invoices and gives no indication of when it was created or whether the costs were paid for.
“I was forced to figure out a way to get things done,” Tobon said, adding that Berroa got a cut of the money every time he cashed an insurance check.
But in his letter, Berroa said his financial loss from hiring Tobon was even larger than he initially realized.
“I recently was made aware that the bank had given Rep. Tobon a two year time frame to finish the property and because he was neglectful and because he took over the time frame the bank had gave him, I lost $26,000 that was supposed to be paid out to me,” he wrote.
‘He’s hurting the community’
While the Berroas never took Tobon to court in connection with his real estate activities, others did.
Beginning in 2013, Tobon started borrowing money from Diagneris Garcia, a one-time girlfriend of his who currently serves as a member of the Providence School Board.
According to a lawsuit Garcia filed against Tobon in 2018, the lawmaker borrowed $10,100 from her for real estate investments at multiple properties. But he stopped repaying her after providing $3,600.
“The defendant owes the Plaintiff the sum of $6,500 for the unpaid balance for the money loaned,” Garcia wrote in the lawsuit.
Within months, a Providence District Court judge ruled in favor of Garcia, who then placed a lien on Tobon’s home at 104 Lawn Ave. in Pawtucket.
Garcia — who was finally repaid two years later using proceeds from Tobon’s unusual business deal with Gloria Tejada — declined to comment for the story.
Tobon has also been taken to court for breach of contract by the family of Francisco Navas, a contractor he hired in 2015.
A contract shows Tobon agreed to pay Navas at least $16,000 to help renovate an investment property the lawmaker had purchased at 681 Broadway in Pawtucket.
The Navas family told Target 12 they completed the work at 681 Broadway but weren’t fully compensated by Tobon, who lost the property to foreclosure shortly thereafter.
“He shouldn’t be signing contracts and hiring people if you’re not going to pay – but he’s a politician, so maybe that’s the red flag,” said Francisco’s wife, Crystal.
“He said he was an up-and-coming representative looking to help the Spanish people and help us find jobs,” she added. “They always want to promise something.”
Sonja Deyoe, an attorney who is representing the Navas family, estimates Tobon currently owes them upward of $30,000 after accounting for six years of interest. The case is currently awaiting trial after a judge ruled against the Navas family’s motion for summary judgment.
Speaking on behalf of Francisco, who was visiting an ailing relative in Guatemala, Crystal said her husband didn’t think Tobon should be holding elected office.
“Of course, he doesn’t deserve this position,” she said. “He is not helping. He’s hurting the community.”
Tobon acknowledged he agreed to the Navas contract, adding that he intends to take care of the debt. But he argued that Navas was asking for too much, especially considering he lost the home to foreclosure.
“I’m not going to try and play saint here — I get it, I’ve made mistakes,” Tobon said. “I was hoping to get across the finish line. I lost the house. I lost everything I put into it. But what I don’t do is sit back and hope that things get better. Unfortunately, these hiccups sometimes they take longer than expected and that’s the situation.”
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‘I would have to check my taxes’
As part of his business dealings, Tobon has repeatedly created new LLCs with the state, only for their registrations to be revoked for failing to file an annual report as required.
Since 2009, Tobon created at least three LLCs under his own name; all three were revoked within two years. He helped at least one family member open a fourth, and his wife – Alejandra – has opened or controlled two others over the past three years.
Asked about his management of the LLCs, Tobon told Target 12, “I know how to open them, clearly. But whenever I did things in the past, somebody would help me do that part and I never learned it.”
In the case of Solrac LLC, Tobon’s contracting company, records show Solrac received a $25,022 check from the Berroas’ insurance company in May 2016, nearly a year after its incorporation had fallen out of good standing with the state.
According to state law, LLCs aren’t allowed to transact business after being revoked. And while the secretary of state’s office doesn’t have any enforcement authority, its website indicates “there are serious consequences to losing your good standing status,” including fines and personal liability.
“A revocation is not an official dissolution, which means you will be liable for taxes and filings with the State of Rhode Island until you legally close your business,” the website states. “While your business remains in a revoked status, you will continue to owe a minimum of $400 to the RI Division of Taxation each year.”
Tobon — who hasn’t formally dissolved any of his LLCs — has struggled to answer questions about whether they have paid taxes over the years.
During a sworn deposition last year, Tobon was stopped by his attorney — Manni, the part-time House lawyer — before he could answer a question about whether the LLCs filed tax returns. It was one of only a few times Manni interrupted the 45-minute deposition.
“I’m going to instruct you not to answer,” Manni told Tobon, according to a transcript reviewed by Target 12. “This is not relevant. It’s not material.”
“You don’t have to answer that question,” Manni repeated after the opposing lawyer made a second attempt to get Tobon to respond.
Asked by Target 12 whether Solrac had paid its taxes, Tobon eventually said he couldn’t remember.
“I mean, I believe so – you know – that was so long ago,” he said. “But I would have to check my taxes.”
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‘Carlos lives in the district’
Even the home address Tobon lists on official documents — from his voter registration to his ethics forms — is in dispute.
Tobon has been legally deposed at least twice over the past five years. Both times, he swore under oath he lived at 104 Lawn Ave. And in 2019, when he made an aborted attempt to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, Tobon also listed his home as 104 Lawn Ave.
Target 12 undercover video showed Tobon periodically entering and exiting 104 Lawn Ave., and he confirmed in an interview he was living there.
Yet in documents related to his service in the General Assembly, Tobon has consistently listed another property as his home address: 30 Bloomingdale Ave., a home which belongs to his parents.
Tobon insisted the inconsistency is an oversight that isn’t a big deal, since both properties are within his House district.
“It’s two blocks away, it’s in the same district that I represent – [30 Bloomingdale] is my parents’ house where I literally lived for almost 20 years,” he said. “104 Lawn Ave. is not my beach home, it’s not my recreational home.”
When asked what he meant, Tobon responded: “I live in the district.”
“They want someone who is present in the district? Carlos lives in the district. OK?” he added. “I get all my mail at 30 Bloomingdale Ave.”
Yet it’s not the first time he’s improperly used 30 Bloomingdale Ave. on legal documents. When Tobon borrowed the $21,000 from April Kuzdeba in 2005, he secured the loan with a lien on 30 Bloomingdale.
Tobon told Target 12 he had his parents’ permission to do so, but acknowledged there wasn’t any documentation to back that up. Kuzdeba’s attorney alleges Tobon committed fraud by using someone else’s property as collateral for a loan.
The case resolved without a decision by the judge on the allegation of fraud. But in his interview with Target 12, Tobon acknowledged his use of 30 Bloomingdale as collateral wasn’t lawful.
“Unfortunately, that wasn’t legal,” he said. “But at the time, I didn’t have an attorney. I didn’t know. And I trusted a third person.”
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‘Everything was from him’
Tobon’s effort to hold onto 104 Lawn Ave. is what led him into the unusual business deal with Gloria Tejada that eventually unraveled.
Tobon said he was facing foreclosure on the property in 2020 after years of trying to make it work with a lender, and he didn’t have good enough credit to secure a new loan under his own name. The city of Pawtucket had already come after him for back taxes on the house.
As a workaround, Tobon said he asked Tejada to register a new corporation — dubbed “104 Lawn LLC” — which would then borrow the money using her credit and purchase the property from him.
In exchange, Tobon said he promised he would pay Tejada $5,000 cash and take care of the new monthly loan payment, along with the property taxes and home insurance costs. Tejada said Tobon actually promised her $15,000, but the deal was never put on paper.
Either way, both sides agree Tobon paid Tejada $5,000 cash at closing, and Tejada said Tobon took care of everything from finding the lender to hiring the attorney for closing.
“Everything was from him – everything,” Tejada said. “The only thing I did [was] my signature.”
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Land records show 104 Lawn LLC borrowed $190,000 in June 2020 from Esposito Capital LLC, a now-defunct financing company owned by Joseph Esposito. (The company’s registered agent was Shekarchi Law Offices, the House speaker’s law firm; Shekarchi and Esposito are cousins.)
The LLC then purchased the multifamily home from Tobon for $160,000. It’s unclear what happened to the remaining $30,000.
Documents show Tobon used proceeds from the sale of 104 Lawn to start paying off some old debts, including the $6,500 he owed to Diagneris Garcia, as well as the remainder of a $100,000 mortgage on the property.
Tobon said he didn’t know Esposito was Shekarchi’s cousin until after they made the deal, and Shekarchi said through a spokesperson he had “no knowledge of the business transaction until the WPRI investigation.”
Esposito did not respond to multiple phone calls seeking comment. (He did return one phone call, but immediately hung up after a reporter identified himself.)
Tobon described the Esposito loan as expensive, saying the long-term plan was for Tejada to refinance and secure a less costly mortgage.
But Tejada said she was frustrated that Tobon only paid her $5,000, and felt increasingly uncomfortable with the entire arrangement. So she asked to get out — a decision she said upset Tobon and Alejandra, his wife.
“He was pissed off,” Tejada said. “But you know, at that point, that was my decision to say, ‘No.’”
Tobon pointed a finger at Tejada.
“She can frame it as she wishes,” he said. “My memory is she got into the deal knowing she couldn’t do it, but she took the money.”
Ultimately, Tejada transferred the LLC – along with the home – into the name of Alejandra Tobon in February 2021. Two months later, Alejandra Tobon refinanced the Esposito loan with a new lender, Finance of America Commercial LLC, which has held the property’s mortgage ever since. (Tobon said the failure to make an insurance payment, resulting in a collection agency sending a letter to Tejada, was “an oversight.”)
104 Lawn LLC has since fallen out of good standing with the state and had its registration revoked in February, raising new questions about whether the Tobons are violating the terms of their mortgage. Tobon said he would take care of the revocation.
‘I wasn’t hiding anything’
Under Rhode Island’s Code of Ethics, state lawmakers are required to file annual financial disclosures detailing their private business activities, an effort to provide transparency for the public. The forms are filed under penalty of perjury.
“You can’t know if a public official has a financial conflict of interest without knowing basic information about their finances,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.
“Financial disclosure tells us, among other things, who a public official is in business with and whether they have any debts,” Marion said. “Those are important facts for the public to know so they can be confident that public officials are serving the public interest and not using their public position to benefit their business partners or creditors.”
But Target 12 reviewed eight years of financial disclosure forms that Tobon submitted to the R.I. Ethics Commission and found a host of omissions, mainly involving the scale of his personal debts, as well as some of his business activities.
Tobon’s financial disclosure for this year was due last Friday, but an Ethics Commission official said he has received a 60-day extension. And in his interview with Target 12, he asserted he hadn’t intended to conceal his financial woes from voters.
“I wasn’t hiding anything,” he said. “I never thought that one had to do with the other. As politicians, we are not perfect. I’m human.”
Yet despite all the financial problems he’s had over the years, Tobon still hasn’t stopped looking for new opportunities.
Over the past two years, he’s worked as a consultant for the Atrium on Main, a new Pawtucket restaurant that opened in the space previously occupied for decades by the China Inn.
Tobon said he was brought into the effort by Louis Yip, who had owned the China Inn and is a prominent figure in Blackstone Valley politics. The idea, Tobon said, was to start as a consultant and then potentially take an ownership stake in the business down the road.
Asked how he was compensated for his consulting on the restaurant, Tobon said, “I get a free meal occasionally when I go eat there.”
More recently, his wife registered the family’s newest company, Esteban & Amber LLC. Last November, Esteban & Amber purchased a new property at 66 Forest Ave., an empty lot that was left vacant after a home burned down in 2019.
Asked how he came up with the $60,000 used to purchase the property, Tobon said none of it was his own money, describing himself as “in the middle of rebuilding my credit.” But he declined to disclose where the cash came from – saying only that the investors were “friends of mine.”
“It’s not public information for a reason,” he said. “It’s about respect.”
Ted Nesi ([email protected]) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Adriana Rozas Rivera and Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.