- David A. Wilson, Executive Director
Media Contact for Superior Court Affirms State Ethics Commission’s Finding that Former Brookfield Selectman Stephen Comtois Violated Conflict of Interest Law
Gerry Tuoti, Public Information Officer
Boston, MA — A decision issued in Suffolk Superior Court has affirmed the State Ethics Commission’s 2020 decision that former Brookfield Selectman Stephen Comtois violated the conflict of interest law in connection with a proposed donation to the town of land that he was interested in buying. The Commission concluded he used his official selectman position to derail the proposed donation so he could privately purchase the land himself.
Following an adjudicatory hearing, the Commission ordered on August 18, 2020 that Comtois pay a $20,000 civil penalty for violating two sections of the conflict of interest law. Comtois appealed the Commission’s decision in Suffolk County Superior Court, where his complaint was dismissed on May 17, 2021.
Comtois’ conflict of interest law violations date back to 2016, when a former Brookfield resident informed the Board of Selectmen of her desire to donate undeveloped land she owned to the town because she believed the land was unbuildable and over-assessed. The town taxed the land as buildable and assessed its value as $43,900.
Despite being interested in purchasing the land himself, Comtois voted as a selectman to present the question of whether to accept the proposed donation of land at an upcoming Town Meeting, then volunteered to act as the Board of Selectmen’s representative to the landowner. In his official capacity, Comtois contacted the landowner’s real estate broker, mischaracterized the Board of Selectmen as being opposed to supporting the proposed land donation, then offered to buy it himself. In the ensuing weeks, Comtois evaded questions from the town’s assistant assessor about the status of the land donation and never notified the other selectmen that he intended to purchase the property. Comtois purchased the property for $200 and an agreement to pay all expenses associated with the purchase. At the time, he considered using the land to store vehicles for a driving school he owned and operated.
By discussing and making recommendations regarding the proposed land donation, contacting the real estate broker on the Board of Selectmen’s behalf, and communicating with the assistant assessor regarding the status of the donation, Comtois violated the conflict of interest law’s prohibition against municipal employees participating in matters in which they know they have a financial interest. In her decision, Suffolk Superior Court Justice Debra A. Squires-Lee reaffirmed the Commission’s longstanding interpretation of the law. “Reasonable municipal employees would understand that, if a person offers to donate land to a town, a member of the Board of Selectmen cannot approve such a donation while simultaneously planning to purchase that property the very next day,” the decision states.
Comtois also violated the law’s prohibition against public employees using their official positions to obtain valuable, unwarranted privileges. He did this by using his position as a selectman to derail the planned donation of the property to the town so he could purchase the property himself. The court decision states that “there was more than sufficient evidence” to conclude that Comtois volunteered to represent the Board of Selectmen with respect to the proposed land donation so that he could offer to purchase the property himself and that he made misrepresentations to the real estate broker to induce her and the landowner to consider selling the land to him rather than donating it to the town.
The State Ethics Commission is charged with civilly enforcing the conflict of interest law, G.L. c. 268A. 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.