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Friday, September 28, 2012

Complaint accuses councilors of ties to Holy Trinity School

As published in the Record Journal Friday September 28, 2012

By Laurie Rich Salerno
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2235

WALLINGFORD — The resident leading the opposition to the town’s plans to repair the Simpson Court parking lot has filed an ethics complaint against two town councilors, saying they should not have discussed issues related to a retaining wall on Holy Trinity School property because of their affiliations with the school.

The retaining wall would be fixed as part of the town’s plan to repair and upgrade the Simpson Court parking lot, if it receives a grant the council approved applying for Tuesday night.

On Sept. 17, Robert Gross filed an ethics complaint with the town’s Board of Ethics and town attorney against Republican Town Councilors Tom Laffin and John LeTourneau. Both dispute Gross’ claims. A Board of Ethics meeting on the issue will be held on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in Room 315 at Town Hall.

Gross could not be reached Thursday. LeTourneau said he’d prefer to discuss the matter in detail after the ethics panel meeting, but Laffin spoke freely, saying he felt the complaint was an ill-conceived and poorly researched political play by Gross, a Democrat.

The complaint says Laffin and LeTourneau should not have participated in conversations at two Town Council meetings, one on June 26 and another on Sept. 11, because of their connections to Holy Trinity School.

LeTourneau’s grandchildren attend the school. Though the complaint says that Laffin’s children also do, his 6-year-old son, Jack, only attends first grade Catholic education classes at Holy Trinity School, Laffin said. The classes are provided through Holy Trinity Church, not the school, and take up about an hour a week.

Laffin said he was frustrated that Gross appeared to have made a serious allegation against him without researching it.

“You’re calling into question my ability to serve? You did it based on a misunderstanding? You didn’t confirm (that my son goes to the school)?” Laffin said, adding that that Gross could have called the school or asked around to confirm his son’s involvement. “How am I going to take anything he says in the future seriously?”

The complaint cites the town’s Code of Ethics regarding conflict of interest and disclosure, which says: “No officer or employee shall have any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect, which is in conflict with the proper discharge of his or her official duties or employment. Interest shall be as defined by the Code of Ethics or other ordinances, as may be applicable to an individual case.” The code also requires that officers or employees who believe they have an interest to tell, in writing, “their affiliation to the chairman or agency, commission or board of which he or she is a member.”

In a letter to the Rev. Dean Warburton, chairman of the Board of Ethics, Laffin disputed the charge.“I will in no way, personally and/or exclusively benefit from any decision made by the town on the Holy Trinity wall. I will not receive monetary compensation or elevated status of any sort, should the town be involved in the wall’s repair,” said Laffin’s letter.

“Had I believed even in the slightest that my relationships … have any impact on my decision any more than my decision is impacted by the fact that I am a patron of all of the downtown restaurants and shops, I would have sought the opinion of the Board of Ethics in advance of any discussion or vote involving the wall.

At the June 26 meeting, councilors voted to have the town attorney’s office look into ownership of the wall to see if the town had any liability for it, after building the parking lot above in 1961. Corporation Counsel Janis Small said at the Sept. 11 meeting, that after researching the issue, she had determined the town is not responsible for the wall. The councilors discussed the Simpson Court project, which would include repairs to the wall, at the Sept. 11 meeting for the first time.

LeTourneau and Laffin, along with other councilors, disclosed their relationships with the church and school at the June 26 meeting, with the exception of Laffin’s son’s Catholic education class, because he was not yet enrolled. Laffin said he is a parishioner and had attended Holy Trinity School, LeTourneau said that he is not a parishioner, but his grandchildren attend the school and his daughter is going to be taking a seat on Holy Trinity’s school board.

Republican Councilors Robert Parisi, Rosemary Rascati and Craig Fishbein each declared that they are members of Holy Trinity Church, and others Thursday said that they’ve supported church fundraisers or had connections in the past, including Councilor Nick Economopoulos, a Democrat, whose wife worked as a teacher at the school more than 20 years ago.

Councilors defended their colleagues, many saying that the two have no conflict because they have no direct financial ties to the school, since it’s LeTourneau’s grandchildren, and Laffin’s child’s program is run through the church, not the school. Sister Kathleen Kelly, the school’s principal, confirmed that the Catholic education classes are run by the church, and just the school facility is used.

“He’s not the legal guardian; he did not direct them to go to the school,” said Councilor Vincent Cervoni, a Republican, of LeTourneau and his grandchildren. “I think the allegations are a real stretch, and that there’s an ulterior motive to me.”

Economopoulos, an opponent of the Simpson Court upgrade plan, says he doesn’t have an opinion on the ethics complaint, but he called the complaint more evidence that the parking lot project will pull the town apart.

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