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Conflict-of-interest complaint filed against two Great Barrington selectmen; Sheffield ConCom member fined $2,500 by state ethics panel

Abrahams doubts anything will come of it because the ethics commission told him earlier there was no conflict of interest so long as he did not have a financial relationship with the applicant or otherwise stand to benefit financially.

Great Barrington — Ethics complaints have been filed with the state against two Great Barrington selectmen over votes taken last month to award a liquor license to the Berkshire Food Co-op. But the precise nature of the complaint and the person who filed it remain a mystery.

Selectmen Ed Abrahams and Bill Cooke voted on Nov. 26 to grant liquor licenses to the Berkshire Food Co-op and Rubiner’s Cheesemongers. Both Abrahams and Cooke were, until a few hours before the meeting, members of the Co-op. Both canceled their memberships before the vote. Abrahams said he had, during the course of his membership, received rebates from the Co-op. The largest was about $7, so it never occurred to him that there would be any financial conflict.

At its Nov. 26 meeting, the Great Barrington Selectboard voted to issue a liquor license to the Berkshire Food Co-op and Rubiner’s Cheesemongers. From left: Steve Bannon, Ed Abrahams, Dan Bailly, Bill Cooke and Kate Burke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In an interview, Abrahams said he had contacted the State Ethics Commission, which acknowledged the receipt of the complaint against him but would tell him little else.

Abrahams doubts anything will come of it because the same ethics commission, along with town counsel David Doneski, told him earlier there was no conflict of interest so long as he did not have a financial relationship with the applicant, or otherwise stand to benefit financially.

“Ethics law is about financial relationships. If you don’t have a financial stake, you can vote,” Abrahams said. “It’s not about past relationships.”

Matt Rubiner, owner of Rubiner’s Cheesemonger’s, also received a beer-and-wine license at the Nov. 26 meeting of the Great Barrington Selectboard. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Cooke also told The Edge he has “only heard rumors” of the complaint but has “not been notified of anything,” including the identity of the complainant, nor would the commission say anything about the matter when asked by The Edge.

“Due to requirements for confidentiality placed on the Commission by statute, I can neither confirm nor deny whether the Commission has received any complaints,” said Gerry Tuoti, public information officer for the commission.

Tuoti pointed to Chapter 268B, Section 4 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which states, in part, “All commission proceedings and records relating to a preliminary inquiry or initial staff review used to determine whether to initiate an inquiry shall be confidential.”

Indeed, Section 7 goes even farther, warning that, “Any person who violates the confidentiality of a commission inquiry … shall be punished by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars or by imprisonment for not more than one year, or both.”

Great Barrington Selectman Ed Abrahams.

Both Cooke and Abrahams filed disclosure forms with town clerk Marie Ryan, as did selectboard member Kate Burke, who had worked for Rubiner’s from 2011 to 2016. In addition, as the current general manager of the Great Barrington Farmers Market, Burke said there are grants from the Co-op that pass through the market, but they do not affect her employment.

There were a number of package store owners at the meeting who objected to the issuance of the licenses. None of them claimed credit for filing the complaint. Joe Aberdale of Aberdale’s in Housatonic could not be reached for comment.

Asked if he filed the complaint, Ed Domaney, owner Domaney’s Liquor’s, replied, “No, absolutely not. I wouldn’t have done that. It was a poor decision to issue those licenses, but I don’t think any business in this town would [file an ethics complaint].”

Ray Almori, who owns Plaza Package and also spoke against the issuance of the licenses, did not file an ethics complaint either, his daughter Jennifer Andersen told The Edge. Neither did Joe Smegal, who runs Cellarbration inside the Big Y.

“I did not file it,” Smegal said. “I did hear rumors that it was being filed.”

Great Barrington resident David P. Ryel, who owns Berkshire Liquors in Lee. Photo: Terry Cowgill

David P. Ryel, owner of Berkshire Liquors in Lee and a Great Barrington resident who spoke out loudly against the licenses, told The Edge he did not know who filed the complaint. But he added that he thought an ethics investigation was called for.

At the Nov. 26 meeting at which the licenses were approved, Robert Mellion, a lobbyist and general counsel for the Massachusetts Package Store Association, spoke on behalf of the liquor store owners who objected to the additional license.

Mellion said his organization did not file the complaint and does not know who did. An Edge inquiry was the first he had heard about the matter. Mellion said the MPSA did not “file, nor initiate, or communicate an alleged conflict of interest violation to the State Ethics Commission against any member of the Great Barrington Selectboard.”

Still, Mellion said the complaint could be politically motivated and more likely originated from someone in local government “because stores would likely not engage in this manner.”

Great Barrington Selectboard member Bill Cooke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“The basis to my opinion is that they typically go before the board annually for the renewal of their license. Store owners like to be off the radar screen and fear retribution,” Mellion said. “Also, a complaint to the State Ethics Commission requires a little sophistication regarding how things work in [Massachusetts]. I provided no such information to any of the stores. I also was not asked to provide such information.”

Abrahams, Cooke and Burke voted to issue the liquor license to the Co-op but selectmen Dan Bailly and Steve Bannon voted against it. Both told the Edge that, like many others, they had heard rumors about a complaint, but they did not file it and did not know who did.

The commission’s procedures for handling ethics complaints can be found by clicking here. After determining whether the matter falls within the commission’s jurisdiction, an initial staff investigation is conducted “to determine if the facts warrant a formal investigation.”

“Many complaints are resolved confidentially at the conclusion of the initial staff review with a private educational letter being sent to the subject of the complaint,” the commission states in its overview. “In these cases, no formal charge of a violation is brought and the matter remains confidential.”

Great Barrington Selectboard member Kate Burke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

If the case is deemed to be worthy of a formal investigation, the commissioners will seek authorization to conduct a “formal inquiry” and “can issue summonses to compel the production of documents and testimony under oath.”

If there is reasonable cause that conflict of interest law has been violated, the subject(s) of the complaint are entitled to an adjudicatory hearing before the commission to defend themselves.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the commissioners issue a “decision and order,” appealable to Superior Court, as to whether there was a violation of the conflict law and what civil penalty, if any, will be assessed.

“If a subject does not wish to contest the reasonable cause finding in an adjudicatory hearing, s/he can settle the matter by means of a public ‘disposition agreement,’ in which the subject admits to violating the conflict of interest law and agrees to pay a civil penalty,” the commission states.

The commission recently decided a case concerning former Sheffield Conservation Commission member Jeffrey Collingwood, who paid a $2,500 civil penalty for violating the conflict of interest law by representing a private client before the town while serving on the conservation commission.

Collingwood, a civil engineer, was hired in 2015 by building contractor George Soudant to help him get permits for work at his property, which contains wetlands, on North Main Street. In July of that year, the Sheffield Board of Selectmen appointed Collingwood to serve on the conservation commission, which enforces the state Wetland Protection Act and is the local permitting authority for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Approximately two months after his appointment, Collingwood appeared before the conservation commission on Soudant’s behalf regarding the North Main Street property, according to the State Ethics Commission. Collingwood later represented Soudant before the Sheffield Zoning Board of Appeals.

Collingwood was paid $4,343 for work performed in relation to the North Main Street property in 2015 and personally received approximately $2,000 after paying subconsultants, according to the ethics commission, which notified Collingwood in March 2017 that he was the subject of an investigation.

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