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Settlement

Settlement In the Matter of Randall Walker

Date: 06/25/2019
Organization: State Ethics Commission
Docket Number: 19-0007
Location: Boston, MA

The Commission approved a Disposition Agreement in which New Braintree Select Board Member Randall Walker admitted that he violated Sections 19 and 20 of the conflict of interest law by voting to authorize the sale of town-owned land he wished to buy, then privately purchasing that land from the town when it was publicly auctioned. Walker paid a $5,000 civil penalty.

Table of Contents

Disposition Agreement

The State Ethics Commission (“Commission”) and Randall Walker (“Walker”) enter into this Disposition Agreement pursuant to Section 3 of the Commission’s Enforcement Procedures.  This Agreement constitutes a consented-to final order enforceable in the Superior Court, pursuant to G.L. c. 268B, § 4(j). 

On March 28, 2018, the Commission initiated, pursuant to G.L. c. 268B, § 4(a), a preliminary inquiry into possible violations of the conflict of interest law, G.L. c. 268A.  On April 18, 2019, the Commission concluded its inquiry and found reasonable cause to believe that Randall Walker violated G.L. c. 268A, §§ 19, 20 and 23(b)(3).

The Commission and Walker now agree to the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:

Findings of Fact

1.            Walker, a resident of New Braintree, was elected to the Town of New Braintree (“Town”) three-member Select Board in 2013. He has been its Chair since 2014.

2.            Walker owns a home and farm (the “Farm”) on West Brookfield Road in New Braintree. Walker grew up on the Farm. He moved back and took over the Farm in or about 2003. He began raising cattle in or about 2007.

3.            The Farm is directly abutted to its north by a thirty-four acre tract known as Parcel 17. Parcel 17 is directly abutted to its north by a thirty-five acre tract known as Parcel 23, and a ten acre tract known as Parcel 20. Parcel 23 and Parcel 20 are adjacent. All three parcels (collectively “the Parcels”) were formerly part of the original Walker Farm over one hundred years ago. Walker purchased Parcel 20 in or about 2008.

4.            Parcels 17 and 23 were taken by the Town in tax-title in or about October 1998 for nonpayment of property taxes by the previous owner. The Town foreclosed on the Parcels 17 and 23 in Land Court in or about February 2007. 

5.            Walker first became interested in acquiring the Parcels soon after moving back to the Farm in or about 2003. He sought to protect the land and its water source for his farm and cattle.

6.            Sometime after moving back in 2003 and before the Town foreclosed in 2007, Walker made efforts to purchase the Parcels on two occasions. He did not purchase the Parcels at those times.

7.            After the Town foreclosed on the land, Walker remained interested in the Parcels. He “kept an eye on” them by periodically asking the Town Treasurer/Tax Collector about their status, both before and after he was elected to the Select Board in 2013.

8.            In 2013, the Town began considering the auction of town-owned land, including Parcels 17 and 23, to increase revenue.

9.            As a Select Board member, Walker participated in the discussion of whether to auction town-owned land with his fellow Select Board members and the Town Treasurer/Tax Collector. Specifically, Walker advocated for the sale of town-owned properties. On February 22, 2016, Walker participated in the vote to approve an auction of town-owned land, including Parcels 17 and 23. The vote was unanimous.

10.          At the time that he voted to authorize the auction, Walker remained interested in purchasing Parcels 17 and 23.

11.          Soon after the vote to authorize the auction, Walker began to seek funding to purchase Parcels 17 and 23. Walker had previously worked with a local land trust (“Trust”) to conserve parts of his property. The Trust secured a grant for Walker to purchase Parcels 17 and 23 in exchange for placing a conservation restriction on the land.

12.          The auction was held on November 9, 2016. The Town Treasurer/Tax Collector decided to auction Parcels 17 and 23 together upon the advice of the auctioneer. . Walker was the winning bidder at $35,000. Walker paid a $5,000 deposit and closing costs. The remainder was funded by the grant secured by the Trust. Walker took title to the property from the Town on or about December 7, 2016.

13.          Walker has worked with the Trust to place a conservation restriction on the land.

14.          Walker cooperated with the Commission’s investigation.

Conclusions of Law

Section 19

15.          Section 19 of G.L. c. 268A prohibits a municipal employee from participating[1]  as such an employee in a particular matter[2]  in which, to his knowledge, he or an immediate family member[3]  has a financial interest.[4] 

16.           As a member of the New Braintree Select Board, Walker was a municipal employee as that term is defined in G.L. c. 268A, § 1(g). 

17.          The Select Board’s decision to authorize an auction of town-owned land was a particular matter.

18.          Walker participated in that particular matter as Chair of the Select Board by discussing with his fellow Select Board members and the Town Treasurer/Tax Collector whether to auction town-owned land, including Parcels 17 and 23, and by voting to approve the auction at the February 22, 2016 Select Board meeting.

19.          At the time of his participation, Walker had a reasonably foreseeable financial interest in the particular matter. Specifically, Walker knew that he was interested in purchasing Parcels 17 and 23.

20.          At the time of his participation, Walker knew that Parcels 17 and 23 directly abutted his own property, the Farm and Parcel 20. At the same time, Walker knew that he had a financial interest in acquiring Parcels 17 and 23 as protection for the water source for his cattle. As a matter of law, Walker, as an abutter, had a presumed financial interest in the auction of Parcels 17 and 23; and, consequently, presumed knowledge of that financial interest.[5] 

21.          Therefore, Walker violated § 19 by participating as Chair of the New Braintree Select Board in the Select Board’s February 22, 2016 decision to auction town-owned land, including Parcels 17 and 23.

Section 20

22.          Section 20 of G.L. c. 268A prohibits a municipal employee from having a financial interest, directly or indirectly, in a contract made by his municipality, in which the municipality is an interested party, and of which financial interest he knows or has reason to know. There are a number of exemptions in § 20, but none are applicable here.

23.          Upon acceptance of his bid, the Town made a contract with Walker for the purchase and sale of Parcels 17 and 23.

24.          The Town was an interested party in the sale because it benefits from the sale’s proceeds.

25.          Walker had a direct financial interest in this contract because it required him to pay the Town the amount of his bid in exchange for the land.

26.          Walker knew that he had a financial interest in that contract.

27.          By having a financial interest in the contract for the sale of land with the Town of New Braintree while serving as the Chair of the Select Board, Walker violated § 20.

Section 23(b)(3)

28.          Section 23(b)(3) of G.L. c. 268A prohibits a public 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 the public employee’s 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 or, if no appointing authority exits, discloses in a manner, which is public in nature, the facts which would otherwise lead to such a conclusion. Such disclosure must be made before taking any official action.

29.          By participating in the Select Board’s discussion and vote to auction town-owned land, Walker acted officially as Chair of the Select Board. When he so acted, Walker knew that he had an interest in purchasing two of the properties. By so participating, Walker acted in a manner that would cause a reasonable person, with knowledge of the relevant circumstances, to conclude that he was acting as a Select Board member in his furtherance of his own private interests.

30.          Walker did not file a written disclosure to dispel this appearance of a conflict prior to participating in the decision to auction town-owned land. Therefore, in so acting, Walker violated § 23(b)(3).

Resolution

In view of the foregoing violations of G.L. c. 268A by Walker, the Commission has determined that the public interest would be served by the disposition of this matter without further enforcement proceedings, on the basis of the following terms and conditions agreed to by Walker:

  1. that Walker pay to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with such payment to be delivered to the Commission, the sum of $5,000 as a civil penalty for violating G.L. c. 268A, §§ 19 and 20; and
     
  2. that Walker waive all rights to contest, in this or any other administrative or judicial proceeding to which the Commission is or may be a party, the findings of fact, conclusions of law and terms and conditions contained in this Agreement.

By signing below, Walker acknowledges that he/she has personally read this Disposition Agreement, that it is a public document, and that he/she agrees to all of the terms and conditions therein.

[1] “Participate” means to participate in agency action or in a particular matter personally and substantially as a state, county or municipal employee, through approval, disapproval, decision, recommendation, the rendering of advice, investigation or otherwise.  G.L. c. 268A, § 1(j).

[2] “Particular matter” means any judicial or other proceeding, application, submission, request for a ruling or other determination, contract, claim, controversy, charge, accusation, arrest, decision, determination, finding, but excluding enactment of general legislation by the general court and petitions of cities, towns, counties and districts for special laws related to their governmental organizations, powers, duties, finances and property.  G.L. c. 268A, § 1(k).

[3] “Immediate family” means the employee and his spouse, and their parents, children, brothers and sisters.  G.L. c. 268A, § 1(e).

[4] “Financial interest” means any economic interest of a particular individual that is not shared with a substantial segment of the population of the municipality.  See Graham v. McGrail, 370 Mass. 133 (1976).  This definition has embraced private interests, no matter how small, which are direct, immediate or reasonably foreseeable.  See EC-COI-84-98.  The interest can be affected in either a positive or negative way.  EC-COI-84-96.

[5] See In re Anderson, 2009 SEC 2205; Commission Advisory No. 05-02: "Voting on Matters Affecting Abutting or Nearby Property," which states: "Under the conflict of interest law, a property owner is presumed to have a financial interest in matters affecting abutting and nearby property."

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