In Bradford, an inn owner sues town, accusing fire chief and treasurer of ‘ill will and evil intent’

  • Joseph Torro of Bradford (right) sits with lawyer Rick Lehmann at the massive dining-room table at the Bradford Village Inn, which has been fraught with problems since Torro bought in 2014. Torro said he wants to open for business, but former owner and town Treasurer Marilyn Gordon and her fiance, fire Chief Mark Goldberg, are conspiring against him. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Joseph Torro of Bradford bought a failing bed and breakfast and now wants to open for business, but he says former inn owner and town Treasurer Marilyn Gordon and fire Chief Mark Goldberg are conspiring against him. Torro (left) stands outside the Bradford Village Inn with his lawyer Rick Lehmann, both asking why this has gone on since 2014. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Bradford fire Chief Mark Goldberg speaks outside his home on Route 114 in Bradford on Friday, April 6, 2018. Goldberg has been named in a lawsuit filed by the new owner of the Bradford Inn. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 4/12/2018 3:48:41 PM

The warmth from the woodstove at the Bradford Village Inn hides a chilly relationship, and these days, nothing can alter the mood that haunts the 120-year-old bed and breakfast.

Not the long, wooden dining-room table that could host dinner for 20. Not the new deck overlooking the thick woods out back. Not the rows of windows with a view that reminds you how great New England is.

When you look deep enough, meet the players involved, ask why no one’s enjoying the six bedrooms upstairs, nearly four years after the town landmark changed ownership, that’s when the chill creeps in.

“I had this dream for my hometown” said Joseph Torro, who bought the inn in 2014 at a foreclosure auction. “I just wanted to open a business, and here I sit today. This did not need to happen. Why did this happen?”

That depends on whom you ask. One thing is firm: Torro is suing the town of Bradford, fire Chief Mark Goldberg and the town Treasurer Marilyn Gordon – who happens to be the ex-inn owner – for $2 million, claiming he’s been unjustly prevented from opening his business due to a laundry list of fire code violations.

Torro said, among other things, that Gordon and Goldberg represent the very definition of a conflict of interest, since the two are dating. He suspects they form a couple with great power in town, and as the inn’s former owner who was forced to sell due to financial troubles, Gordon wanted another shot to keep her business afloat.

Gordon’s hope to keep the inn was spoiled when Torro swept in and bought the place for $258,000, far below Gordon’s original asking price. That’s when Torro’s trouble with Goldberg began.

As Torro sees it, Goldberg never cited any problems at the inn in years past, when he regularly stayed overnight with Gordon, with whom he’s now engaged.

Once Torro took over, Goldberg alerted the State Fire Marshal’s Office to potential violations in March 2015, after he had recused himself from any involvement.

Goldberg, meanwhile, said the plaintiff has no case, that he was sloppy during the preliminary stages before buying the inn and should have seen code problems coming from a mile away.

“You have a person who bought the inn and said he did his due diligence when he bought the inn,” Goldberg said by phone. “He thought his due diligence just let him go ahead and open the inn, but his due diligence was flawed, and now he wants to blame everyone else but himself. Forget about all that other crap.”

Pointed fingers

There’s certainly a lot of finger-pointing going on in Bradford, a town with about 1,600 residents nestled to the west of Henniker and Warner.

Instead of a quaint business opening in a historic building constructed in 1897, the fire chief and his fiancee might one day appear in court, hauled in by a local businessman who’s shouting corruption from the town’s rooftops.

Goldberg is on firm footing as chief, having held the slot for more than 30 years. He said he was named chief by a unanimous vote of the town’s volunteer firefighters.

Torro’s lawsuit extends beyond the couple. He says members of the select board gave him a thumbs-up on the inn’s future, telling him that safety violations would not be a problem and he’d be in line for a tax abatement to ease some of the financial pressure.

That’s not what happened, and now Torro wants to know why the promised tax relief disappeared after Gordon held a closed-door meeting with the select board. He wants to know why he funneled more than $250,000 to spruce up the old inn and make it safer with upgrades like smoke detectors, while all along he should have been focusing on more expensive fire code issues, like sprinklers.

“I was assured there were no issues, so I dove in and started putting money in,” Torro told me, with his lawyer, Rick Lehmann of Manchester, seated beside him at that long, near-empty dining room table.

Torro and Lehmann notified the media last month, looking to publicize their fight with town officials. During our recent meeting at the inn, Torro, who’s spent most of his 60 years in Bradford, painted himself as a sympathetic figure, plagued by financial ruin, broken dreams, depression and divorce proceedings that continue to this day.

“I went into a funk,” Torro said. “I sat on the couch for two months here.”

A nightmare, not a dream

When Torro bought the place at auction in August 2014 for $258,000, the seed for bad blood had been planted, Torro said.

He’d made two offers – for $175,000 and $195,000 – in 2014 for the property, which had been on the market as far back as 2010. The commercial asking price at that time, according to the lawsuit, was $600,000.

Then, when Gordon told Torro that the name “Candlelite Inn” was hers and off-limits to him, tensions, Torro suspects, mounted.

Not because Torro was mad he couldn’t use the old name. He wanted to rename the inn, but figures Gordon was upset that he never made an offer for the rights to the old name.

“If I’d said, ‘I’ll give you $30,000 for the naming rights to the Candlelite, none of this would have ever happened,’ ” Torro said. “That’s my assumption.”

Goldberg told me Gordon wanted no part of this column, and even as the Monitor took pictures of Goldberg with his fiancee sitting nearby, she remained silent the entire time.

Information from select board members – whom Torro said were supportive at first – was also hard to come by.

Torro mentioned John Pfeifle, who’s still on the board but did not return a pair of phone messages. Newly elected Jim Bibbo had no comment, telling me, “We’re not supposed to talk about it, so I’m not going to talk about it.”

And Sonny Harris, who has since been voted out of office, told me he didn’t recall telling Torro that fire codes were not an issue. Nor did he recall a confrontation behind closed doors with Gordon, who Torro thought was miffed that the select board had offered him a tax break while she never got one.

The offer for a tax abasement, according to Torro, magically disappeared after that heated discussion with Gordon.

And then there was the fire marshal’s list of violations, dated Oct. 30, 2014, that Torro said caught him completely off guard.

He had widened the driveway so emergency vehicles could have better access to the inn, lined the chimneys to make them safer and was in the process of installing smoke alarms.

But an automatic sprinkler system, which Torro said would cost him at least $75,000, came out of the blue.

“It wasn’t required before, when the property was being run by Marilyn Gordon,” Torro said.

Two sides to a story

Torro said he was under the impression that local authorities would work with him, help him to build his business by cutting him slack on some of the expenses.

“I spoke to John (Pfeifle) and he told me everything was set,” Torro claimed. “He said, ‘We’ll take care of it.’ ”

Goldberg laughed when I relayed Torro’s side of the story. Of course a bed and breakfast must be inspected when it changes ownership. Of course sprinklers are needed. Of course this is a black-and-white situation, in which safety measures must be put in place according to the law.

“It’s necessary to respect our authority and how we operate and following the laws,” Goldberg told me. “Anything different is crazy. I know I’m going to be called the bad guy. I’m costing you money, so of course I’m the bad guy.”

What about Torro’s contention that the inn hadn’t been inspected in years past, when Gordon owned it.

“In our town, that’s not unusual,” Goldberg told me. “It’s just a volunteer department with a volunteer chief. We don’t go and inspect every year. I inspect if there is a change in use or there’s a complaint.”

Okay. But while living with Gordon at the very location Torro now owns, hadn’t the fire chief noticed all those violations during those nights he had spent at the inn?

Nope, Goldberg said. Gordon’s residence and the inn were separate structures under one roof.

“I did not spend any time in the inn,” Goldberg insisted. “I stayed over but I did not move in. Marilyn has civil rights, and for me to just walk around and say, ‘Hey, this is not up to snuff, I’m going to close it down,’ violated those civil rights.”

To which Lehmann, Torro’s attorney, asked in astonishment, “He’s saying he didn’t know what the inside of the place was like?”

Recused or not recused? That is the question.

No matter what the chief knew, he recognized the potential for a conflict and recused himself in an Oct. 10, 2014, email to Danielle Cole of the State Fire Marshal’s Office and asked her to inspect the inn, which she did on Oct. 30, when all those violations were discovered.

But Goldberg wasn’t finished. In March 2015, Goldberg told the State Fire Marshal’s Office that Torro was open for business and had not addressed the problems discovered by Cole five months prior.

Goldberg “had heard from Marilyn Gordon that she had heard from Fay Torro (the Inn owner’s ex-wife) that Fay’s daughter had told Fay that the inn had been renting to skiers and snowboarders over the past several weekends,” according to a report issued by Eric Berube of the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

Goldberg went digging online and found a review that showed a party of 13 had stayed at the inn, which he quickly relayed to the fire marshal.

By then, though, Torro was renting the entire inn – not individual rooms – to large groups simply to earn money while he figured out how to save his dream.

Berube found no violations, stating in his report that “the rental of an entire dwelling unit to one person or one group does not fall under the fire code’s definition of a lodging or rooming house. As such, the use of the estate for complete facility rentals is not prohibited by the fire codes.”

It was all perfectly legal.

“What appalled me was the extent Goldberg and Gordon went to try to create harm,” Torro wrote in an email to me.

These days, Torro looks worn out, beaten. He bowed his head and moved it slowly from side to side as we talked. He said his wife left him, in part, because of the stress created since he bought the inn nearly four years ago.

Fed up and desperate, Torro hired Lehmann late last year and now hopes his day in court will prove that the town’s fire chief, treasurer and select board have created an unnecessary and immoral road block.

An audio recording from an open meeting with the select board, dated Oct. 6, 2014, revealed this mixture of tension and confusion.

“I don’t want this to be some secretive thing here,” Torro can be heard saying, concern evident in his voice. “If there is something I need to know ... I don’t want it to be a surprise, I don’t want it to be something that’s held back and brought up later.”

After Goldberg declares that he’s recusing himself because of the potential for conflict of interest, Pfeifle says, “Sounds like we’re in business.”

Today, 3½ years later, while the inn is woodstove-warm, the lawsuit’s language is awfully cold.

“Goldberg and Gordon,” it reads, “acted with malice, ill-will and evil intent.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, or on Twitter @rayduckler.)


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