- David A. Wilson, Executive Director
Media Contact for State Ethics Commission Finds Former Brookfield Selectman Stephen Comtois Violated Conflict of Interest Law
Gerry Tuoti, Public Information Officer
Boston, MA — The State Ethics Commission has issued a Decision and Order finding that former Brookfield Selectman Stephen Comtois violated the conflict of interest law when he acted as a Selectman concerning the proposed donation to the town of land he was interested in buying and used his official position to derail the proposed donation in order to privately purchase it himself for substantially less than its assessed value. The Commission ordered Comtois to pay a $20,000 civil penalty.
In 2016, a former Brookfield resident, who believed the undeveloped land she owned in the town was unbuildable and over-assessed, informed the Board of Selectmen in writing of her desire to donate the land to the town. Although the owner believed the property was not buildable, the town taxed it as a buildable lot and assessed its value as $43,900.
At a December 13, 2016 Board of Selectmen meeting, the Selectmen discussed the property and its proposed donation to the town and expressed sympathetic understanding of the owner’s situation. On a motion suggested by Comtois as board Chair, the board unanimously voted to present the question of whether to accept the proposed property donation at the next Town Meeting with the stated understanding that the town would pay to clear the property’s title if the donation was accepted. Comtois then volunteered to inform the owner of the details of the board’s decision to present the question of the donation’s acceptance to Town Meeting.
The next morning, in his capacity as a Selectman and the board’s representative, Comtois called the owner’s real estate broker. During the call, Comtois, through untrue statements and omissions, misrepresented the Selectmen’s position, telling the broker that the board would not support the proposed donation to the town. Comtois then offered to buy the land himself.
Multiple times over the next several weeks, the town’s Assistant Assessor, who then believed Comtois was acting as the town’s representative, asked Comtois for updates on the status of the donation. Comtois responded evasively and caused the Assistant Assessor to believe the donation was progressing. Comtois never told the Assistant Assessor or the other Selectmen that he intended to purchase the property and was pursuing his own interests rather than the town’s. Comtois purchased the property for $200 and a promise to pay all expenses associated with the purchase and at the time considered using the land to store vehicles for a driving school he owned and operated.
The conflict of interest law prohibits municipal employees from participating in matters in which they know they have a financial interest. Comtois violated this legal prohibition by participating as a Selectman in the proposed property donation to the Town by discussing and making recommendations regarding the proposed donation, voting to present the question of the proposed donation to Town Meeting, contacting the real estate broker on the board’s behalf regarding the proposed donation, and repeatedly communicating with the Assistant Assessor regarding the status of the donation, all while knowing of his financial interest in the property.
The conflict of interest law also prohibits public employees from using their official positions to obtain valuable, unwarranted privileges that are not properly available to similarly situated individuals. Comtois violated this legal prohibition by knowingly using his position as a Selectman to become and act as the liaison between the Selectmen and the property owner in order to derail the planned donation of the property to the town and secure for himself the opportunity to purchase the property.
The Commission’s Enforcement Division alleged Comtois also violated a section of the law that addresses appearances of conflicts of interest when, in March 2017, he directed the Brookfield Highway Superintendent to stop an on-call town worker who lacked proper paperwork from clearing snow from sidewalks, without disclosing that the worker had previously confronted him about purchasing the property. The law requires that when there are circumstances which would cause a reasonable person to conclude 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 of the factors that create the appearance of a conflict of interest. The Commission found Comtois did not violate this legal prohibition, as his actions regarding the on-call worker arose from a concern about liability for the town due to the on-call worker’s missing paperwork.
The issuance of the Decision and Order concludes the Commission’s adjudicatory proceeding against Comtois, which was initiated when the Commission’s Enforcement Division filed an Order to Show Cause against Comtois on April 11, 2019. Comtois has 30 days within which to pay the $20,000 civil penalty or file an appeal in the Superior Court.
The Commission encourages public employees to contact the Commission’s Legal Division at 617-371-9500 for free advice if they have any questions regarding how the conflict of interest law may apply to them.