Ethics Commission Finds that Billerica Cemetery Division Foreman Joseph Turner Violated the Conflict of Interest Law
Sold Cemetery Plots to His Parents in Violation of Town Policy, Enabling Them to Avoid a Scheduled Price Increase
According to the Decision, Turner's duties as Division Foreman included selling cemetery plots. Town policy restricted the sale of plots based on immediate need. In May 2008, Turner deviated from that policy and sold four cemetery plots to his parents for $1,560, just prior to a scheduled price increase, thereby saving his parents $440.
Section 19 of the conflict of interest law prohibits a municipal employee from participating as such in a particular matter in which, to his knowledge, an immediate family member has a financial interest. Section 23(b)(2) prohibits a municipal employee from knowingly, or with reason to know, using or attempting to use his official position to secure for himself or others unwarranted privileges or exemptions, which are of substantial value, and which are not properly available to similarly situated individuals.
Section 23(b)(3) prohibits a municipal employee from, knowingly, or with reason to know, acting in a manner which would cause a reasonable person, having knowledge of the relevant circumstances, to conclude that any person can improperly influence or unduly enjoy his favor in the performance of his official duties, or that he is likely to act or fail to act as a result of kinship, rank, position or undue influence of any party or person. The section further provides that it shall be unreasonable to so conclude if such employee has disclosed in writing to his appointing authority the facts which would otherwise lead to such a conclusion.
According to the Decision, Turner violated the conflict of interest law by, as Division Foreman, selling four cemetery plots to his parents, and by using his Division Foreman position to secure the plots for his parents in violation of Town policy restricting sales for immediate need, and just before a price increase was to go into effect. Turner also violated the law because his actions would cause a reasonable person, with knowledge of the relevant circumstances, to conclude that Turner's parents could improperly influence him or unduly enjoy his favor in the performance of his official duties or that he was likely to act or fail to act as a result of kinship with, or undue influence by his parents. Turner did not file any written disclosures with his appointing authority, the Town Manager.
In its Decision, the Commission states that the relatively low civil penalty of $440, representing the amount of money saved by the parents by purchasing the cemetery plots prior to the price increase, was warranted for the following reasons:
- Turner's supervisor was aware of Turner's conduct and failed to take corrective action;
- the unwarranted privilege Turner secured for his parents was of modest value;
- it was a very close question as to whether Turner knew of the impending price increase; and
- the illegality of Turner's conduct would not have been obvious to a person in Turner's position, particularly to one like Turner who had not received training on the conflict of interest law.
Turner has 30 days to pay the fine or appeal the Commission's Decision to the Superior Court.Decision and Order