Joseph Ricci's Career And Controversy
By Dwight F. Blint - The Hartford Courant

POLAND, Maine - Joseph Ricci is no stranger to the spotlight.

In fact, Ricci, a likely defense witness for Michael Skakel, likes it.

The co-founder of Elan School, a private boarding school for troubled teens, Ricci stands ready to rebut allegations that Skakel, while attending Elan from 1978-80, confessed to the 1975 killing of Martha Moxley.

Ricci, who has also made headlines as owner of the Scarborough Downs harness racetrack, seems to be a magnet for controversy.

Ricci, 52, was raised by his grandparents after his father ran out on his then-pregnant mother. He describes himself as a poor kid from Port Chester, N.Y., who never went to college.

It is his poor upbringing and time spent in state custody that prompts him to rebel against authority, Ricci said.

``I'm not the establishment's favorite person,'' Ricci said. ``In my lifetime, I've sued everybody.''

A former heroin addict, Ricci first garnered public attention in 1970 after moving to Maine and opening Elan, where adolescents with behavorial and substance-abuse problems could get treatment and education.

Ricci said he got the idea when young people he had worked with in drug-treatment facilities in Massachusetts and Connecticut would graduate from the programs but be unable to find jobs.

``We're the only therapeutic community in the United States with a full-blown high school,'' Ricci said.

The school, which now charges tuition of roughly $40,000 a year, used controversial peer-counseling methods that Ricci learned at other facilities. Practices included students yelling at each other, wearing signs, being forced to clean and boxing matches to work out differences.

Although Ricci was rough on his students, he said he wanted to make sure everyone else gave them a fair shake.

One of his first acts after opening Elan, Ricci said, was to sue the Maine Principals Association. He said the high school league tried to block African-American players from participating on his school's teams.

``They thought every one of them was a ringer,'' Ricci said.

But Ricci also has found himself on the defensive.

In 1975, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services investigated allegations of abuse at the school. A number of other states, including Connecticut, followed suit.

There is no record that the charges were substantiated, but the state of Illinois stopped sending students to Elan. Ricci went on a public relations blitz emphasizing that some of those students had sued the state to be returned to Elan.

In 1996, Ricci lost a sexual-harassment lawsuit filed by a female employee.

Ricci's success with the school allowed him in 1979 to purchase Scarborough Downs. Since that time, he has waged a public battle with Maine gaming officials and Gov. Angus King over what he calls their practice of clamping down on private gambling while promoting state-sponsored lottery games.

But it wasn't until 1986, when Ricci made the first of two bids for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, that his name became a prominent part of Maine's landscape.

His reputation grew the following year when a federal jury determined that Key Bank had cut off Ricci's credit in 1982 based on false reports that linked him to organized crime. Ricci was awarded $15 million.

Ricci, who felt that his Italian heritage was being maligned, later settled out-of-court after the bank threatened to appeal the jury award.

Most recently, Ricci has been tangling with the U.S. Postal Service. Ricci sued the agency, accusing it of engaging in a sweetheart deal with Julian R. Coles, chairman of the Maine Turnpike Authority. Ricci, who wanted a new mail distribution center located on his property, believes that federal officials worked a backroom deal to put the center on a site near property owned by Coles.

The suit also alleges that a local mail service manager implied Ricci had links to organized crime.

``I'm tired of being called a killer,'' Ricci said.

But Ricci's life is not just about taking on the big guys. He is considered as generous as he is tenacious, an animal lover who gives to charity and a man strongly supported by working-class voters in the state.