State ethics panel blasts West Stockbridge fire chief for ‘multiple conflict of interest violations’
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include civil penalties the ethics commission can impose for violations of its laws.
West Stockbridge —The embattled fire chief of West Stockbridge has just encountered more trouble.
Following up on complaints, the State Ethics Commission today accused Chief Peter Skorput of “multiple conflict of interest violations.” Click here to view the entire order to show cause filed today. The order will trigger a hearing before the commission before the end of the year.
Skorput, a former selectboard member, allegedly “committed multiple conflict of interest law violations, including setting stipends for himself, his daughter and his nephew; voting as a selectboard member to reappoint himself fire chief; and terminating a firefighter who had filed a complaint against him,” according to a news release issued by the ethics commission today.
According to the order, shortly after Skorput was elected to the selectboard in 2013, an unnamed West Stockbridge official contacted the town’s attorney about conflict-of-interest law exemptions available to Skorput concerning his serving simultaneously as both a selectboard member and the fire chief.
The commission says town counsel advised the official that Skorput follow the requirements for a particular conflict-of-interest law exemption that would allow him to accept pay for both positions. Even though this advice was communicated to Skorput, the chief did not act on it.
From the time he was elected in 2013 until January 2017, Skorput did not seek or meet the exemption requirements, thus violating state conflict-of-interest law in continuing to hold his compensated fire chief position after he was elected to the selectboard, according to the order.
The order further alleges Skorput violated the conflict-of-interest law by participating officially in matters pertaining to the financial interests of both himself and his daughter.
Furthermore, rather than abstaining, Skorput voted in 2013 as a selectboard member to reappoint himself as fire chief. The order also alleges that he decided the amount of firefighter stipends for himself each December from 2013 to 2015 and for his daughter Tricia Skorput in 2013 and 2014, and as a selectboard member, signed the pay warrants for the daughter’s stipends.
In addition, at several selectboard meetings in 2015 and 2016, Skorput is said to have participated as a selectboard member in the board’s review of complaints about his performance as fire chief.
In 2016, after Lt. Jim Hallock of the fire department filed a written complaint to the selectboard concerning Skorput’s performance as chief, Skorput allegedly texted him, “Turn in your gear,” and then promptly fired him.
“The Order alleges that Skorput’s retaliation against the fire lieutenant violated the conflict of interest law’s prohibition against public employees using their positions to obtain unwarranted privileges,” the commission’s executive director David A. Wilson said in the release.
The order also says Skorput’s official actions “created an appearance of bias, favoritism, or undue influence on several occasions.” In 2017, for example, after the Board of Health ordered Skorput to take action concerning alleged “illegal dumping of refuse materials” on his property, Skorput voted at a selectboard meeting against reappointing Health Agent Earl Moffat, a business owner in town and a former selectman, and Board of Health Chair Scott Sawyer, to other town positions they held, the order stated.
Skorput also allegedly set stipends and signed pay warrants for his nephew William Cooper, who was a firefighter, and voted as a selectboard member to appoint a personal friend, Paul Marchetto, to a paid transfer-station attendant position.
According to the order, “Skorput violated the conflict of interest law’s prohibition against a public employee acting officially on matters under circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to conclude that the employee would likely be unduly influenced or biased in performing his official actions.”
The commission added that Skorput failed to file disclosures that would “dispel the appearance of bias, undue influence, or favoritism before acting on these matters.”
According to the commission’s enforcement procedures, the Enforcement Division only files an order to show cause after the commission has found “reasonable cause” to believe the subject of the order has violated state conflict-of-interest law.
Before filing the order, the Enforcement Division gives the subject or his attorney an opportunity to resolve the matter through a disposition agreement. It is not clear who Skorput’s lawyer is or if he has one at all. Skorput did not immediately return an email message seeking comment. The commission will schedule the matter for a hearing within 90 days.
The ethics commission’s website contains information on possible civil sanctions, should the commission find that Skorput committed the offenses of which he is accused: “The Commission is authorized to impose a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation of … the conflict of interest law, or … the financial disclosure law.”
Skorput also came under fire at a selectboard meeting last month, when recently elected selectman Eric Shimelonis, who had resigned earlier as a volunteer for the fire department, declared that the beleaguered fire chief’s lack of leadership and organizational abilities “put the town at risk.”
Selectboard chair Bernie Fallon did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Shimelonis declined to comment.