- David A. Wilson, Executive Director
Media Contact for Ethics Commission’s Enforcement Division Alleges Former Brookfield Selectman Stephen Comtois Violated Conflict of Interest Law
Gerry Tuoti, Public Information Officer
Boston, MA — The Enforcement Division of the State Ethics Commission today filed an Order to Show Cause alleging that former Brookfield Selectman Stephen Comtois violated the conflict of interest law by using his official position to facilitate his private purchase of real estate, which an elderly Brookfield resident had offered to donate to the town, for approximately $40,000 less than its assessed value. The Order also alleges that Comtois retaliated against another resident who publicly confronted him about his purchase of the property.
According to the Order, Comtois was a Brookfield Selectman when an elderly resident decided to donate property to the town, believing it was unbuildable and over assessed. The town’s Assistant Assessor requested authorization for Town Counsel to clear the property’s defective title in preparation for accepting the donation.
Comtois, as selectman, allegedly advised the Assistant Assessor that the property donation required approval at Town Meeting. During a December 13, 2016 Board of Selectmen meeting, Comtois allegedly moved to place acceptance of the property donation before Town Meeting with the stated understanding that the town would pay to clear the title if Town Meeting accepted the donation. According to the Order, Comtois then voted in favor of his motion, which passed. Comtois then allegedly volunteered to contact the donor on the Board of Selectmen’s behalf.
The next day, Comtois allegedly called the donor’s real estate agent, a friend with whom he had previously conducted private business. In the coming weeks, the Assistant Assessor twice asked Comtois for updates on the status of the donation, according to the Order. Comtois allegedly replied that the matter would soon be resolved and gave no indication that the donation was not forthcoming. During the same period, Comtois allegedly arranged with the real estate agent to privately purchase the property himself for $200. At the time of the sale, which was recorded on or about February 1, 2017, the property had an assessed value of more than $40,000.
At a Board of Selectmen meeting approximately three weeks later, a Brookfield resident confronted Comtois about purchasing the property. Approximately three weeks after that meeting, Comtois, as Selectman, allegedly directed the Brookfield Highway Superintendent to fire the resident, who had done on-call snow removal work for the town, due to missing paperwork.
Section 19 of the conflict of interest law, G.L. c. 268A, prohibits municipal employees from participating in matters in which they know they have a financial interest. The Order alleges that Comtois violated this section when he, knowing he had a reasonably foreseeable financial interest in the property donation, proposed putting acceptance of the donation before Town Meeting, voted on that motion, volunteered to communicate with the donor on behalf of the town, and briefed the Assistant Assessor on the status of the donation.
Comtois also allegedly violated Section 23(b)(2)(ii) of the conflict of interest law, which prohibits public employees from using an official position to secure unwarranted benefits of substantial value that are not available to similarly situated individuals. According to the Order, Comtois violated this section when he used his position as Selectman to secure an opportunity to privately buy the property, depriving the town of the chance to benefit from receiving the land donation. Acting as the town’s representative concerning the donation, Comtois effectively blocked communications between the town and the donor, facilitating his own private purchase of the property through the real estate agent, who was his friend and longtime professional colleague.
According to the Order, Comtois also violated Section 23(b)(3). This section requires that whenever there are circumstances that would cause someone to reasonably conclude that a public employee would be biased or subject to undue influence while performing official actions, the public employee may not perform those actions without first filing a public disclosure that explains the factors that create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Comtois allegedly violated Section 23(b)(3) when he directed the Highway Superintendent to fire the on-call worker, without disclosing that the worker had confronted him about purchasing the property.
According to the Commission’s Enforcement Division’s procedures, the Enforcement Division files an Order to Show Cause after the Commission has found reasonable cause to believe the subject of the order to have violated the conflict of interest law. Before filing the Order to Show Cause, the Enforcement Division gives the subject or his attorney an opportunity to resolve the matter through a public education letter or disposition agreement.
The Commission will schedule the matter for a hearing within 90 days.