EXPANDED: FULL TEXT of Musto comments re. Trumbull Housing Authority

Note: This commentary is in response to a statement from First Selectman Timothy Herbst. Read Herbst statement here.

Mr. Herbst's recent comments regarding the Trumbull Housing Authority (THA) are so defamatory, so outrageous, and so filled with falsehoods that I felt the need to respond, both for myself and also for those members of the Commission who are not used to being disparaged publicly for their community service.

I note at the outset that Mr. Herbst assumes throughout his comments that his opinion is more informed than that of the majority of the THA Commission: Judi Stern, THA Chairman, who served on the Commission for 11 years and whose family founded THA, appropriately named Stern Village; Bob Marconi, a two-term commissioner who has served Trumbull in many elected and appointed offices for over 40 years; and Thelma Burr, another two-term commissioner elected by the tenants of THA and herself a resident of Stern Village.

All three voted to renew the employment of THA's executive director, Harry Wise, and were therefore labeled by Mr. Herbst as "deceitful", "duplicitous", and "unscrupulous." The only dissenting commissioner was Gail Hanna, appointed by Mr. Herbst.

Mr. Herbst said THA was not properly addressing the safety of the residents. This is false and is a direct result of the fact that Mr. Herbst does not understand the role of THA nor what Mr. Wise did during the storm. Mr. Wise was at THA during the storm and ensuing blackout almost constantly to work with residents and ensure their safety. THA is a municipal housing project for low income residents who come and go as they please and receive no special care or assistance beyond what any other tenant receives from any other landlord. Mr. Wise has no obligation to assist residents in any way, and yet he worked hard throughout the entire blackout for just that purpose. The Commission saw this and maintained their faith in Mr. Wise. Mr. Herbst disagreed and resorted to publicly attacking the character of the commissioners.

Mr. Herbst singled out Ms. Stern as lacking concern for the residents of Stern Village, placing politics ahead of people and holding a secret meeting to renew Mr. Wise's contract. All false. The meeting at which Mr. Wise's contract was renewed was anything but secret. On the contrary, it was a regular monthly meeting, properly noticed, with the agenda publicly posted in the offices of THA, although not in the Town Clerk's office due to THA misunderstanding the rules requiring posting in both places. Ms. Hanna was aware of the meeting, attended and voted, and raised no objection regarding its legality or secrecy.

More importantly, Ms. Stern has never shown anything but concern for Stern Village residents. Ms. Stern, having served THA for years and worked with Mr. Wise for years, was clearly more aware of both THA's mission and its duties to its residents, as well as Mr. Wise's work and stewardship of THA, than Mr. Herbst. Again, Ms. Stern disagreed with Mr. Herbst's opinion and believed that Mr. Wise's contract should be renewed, and she was joined in that belief by all members of the commission not appointed by Mr. Herbst. Suggesting a political motive on her part is patently absurd. Mr. Herbst has not identified any political motive or agenda, nor can he.

Mr. Herbst states that Ms. Stern and I drafted provisions of a contract that were a "done deal" before taking it to other commission members. This is false. Mr. Wise has had a contract for 10 years, initially for 5 years and with a 5- year renewal expiring in June. I received a draft of a 2-year renewal from Mr. Wise's attorney and negotiated changes to that draft only with him. Ms. Stern had no role in the negotiation or drafting of the renewal at all, and I received no comments from her prior to the meeting.

In fact, I had no discussions with any commissioners prior to the meeting. All commissioners, including Ms. Hanna, received a copy of the draft contract before the meeting, together with an agenda. While Mr. Herbst is correct that some changes benefited Mr. Wise, some changes did not; for example, he does not receive the annual raise he had received every year of his employment. I discussed the renewal in executive session with all of the commissioners at the same time. Thereafter the commission voted to approve it, although the commission could have voted to reject it or to approve it with changes.

All of this was done at a regularly scheduled meeting and with notice to all commissioners and the public. After the commission approved the renewal it was signed by the parties. Mr. Herbst's suggestion that a contract to which all parties agreed should not have been signed while everyone was together is nonsensical.

Mr. Herbst claims that there should have been a public hearing on the contract. That is false. He cites no authority for this statement, and none exists. On the contrary, Connecticut law (Sec. 8-41(a)) allows the Commission to hire an executive director as it allows them to hire legal counsel. If a public hearing is required, why was one not required before the new commissioners hired a new attorney? The answer is simple – no public hearing is required for either action, and the Commission acted appropriately in both instances. This is a red herring.

Mr. Herbst claims that I advised my client to participate in an illegal meeting. That is false. I have never advised THA regarding the legality of any meeting in the 10 years I have served there, nor was I ever asked to advise them on the legality of any meeting. I had no role in scheduling, posting, recording, or any other organization of the meeting.

Mr. Herbst says that I advised my client to approve a contract that was not in my client's best interest. This is false, and I have several other problems with it:

First, Mr. Herbst was not in executive session, nor even at the meeting, so he could not know what advice I gave unless someone in executive session told him. If no one discussed it with him, then he is speculating on what I may have advised my client without any basis whatsoever. If someone did discuss this with Mr. Herbst, then that person may have violated Trumbull's ethics rules regarding disclosing confidential information. I suggest that Mr. Herbst could end all speculation on this point by revealing from whom he got his information.

Second, I have never advised a client to accept or reject a contract in full. It is not my job to think for my clients, only to make sure that they understand their legal rights and obligations. I advise my clients as to the effects of the contract, advise whether certain terms are good or bad for them and how they might be changed, answer their questions, and ensure that their concerns are addressed. They then decide whether to accept or reject the contract, sometimes in spite of my concerns. I cannot reveal here specifically what was discussed in executive session, but I can tell you I followed my standard practice and did not advise THA to either accept or reject the contract as drafted.

Third, this comment by Mr. Herbst, together with his comment that the actions of THA and I were "deceitful", "duplicitous", and "unscrupulous" goes beyond any of the rhetoric he has used to date and any that is acceptable by any standard. His statement calls into question my honesty, ethics and competence as an attorney. Mr. Herbst states that I advised my client to hold an illegal meeting, to enter a contract that was against their interests, and that I acted dishonestly and unscrupulously. None of this is true. It seems to me at first blush that this is libel, and it seems libelous per se in that it injures my standing in my profession and calling.

The facts are that Harry Wise has been the executive director of THA for about 15 years, and has had a contract for 10 of those years. Judi Stern has served on the Commission for 11 years, and the complex is named Stern Village after Ms. Stern's family who founded it. Mr. Wise's contract was up for renewal in June and he requested a 2-year renewal. Five years ago his contract was also up for renewal in June and was extended at the regular January meeting. Ms. Stern and the majority of the board, including the commissioner who lived at Stern Village, agreed that Mr. Wise had done a good job for 15 years and wanted him to remain as executive director in spite of the objections of Mr. Herbst.

Mr. Herbst disagreed, but rather than accepting that the THA was an independent commission and allow it to do its job, he chose to interfere dramatically. He obtained a legal opinion, unilaterally declared the meeting illegal, derided it as "secret," replaced Ms. Stern, attempted to replace Mr. Marconi prematurely, and degraded and vilified the entire Commission as "deceitful", "duplicitous", and "unscrupulous." He attacked me with the same labels, additionally questioning my professional honesty, ethics and competency.

Mr. Herbst comments in this matter are beyond the bounds of reasoned debate we should expect from our leaders. This is especially true regarding Ms. Stern. He could have simply replaced Ms. Stern, thanked her for her years of service and for her family's contributions, and proceeded to attempt to undo whatever he disagreed with. He did not have to claim she had any secret, unscrupulous, deceitful, duplicitous, or political motivation.

This type of personal vilification seems to be increasingly common from Mr. Herbst, who publicly questioned the honestly of Mayor Finch and Former First Selectman Baldwin, and also publicly chastised Councilwoman Mark, all within the past several months. Rather than simply acknowledging their differences of opinion, or even ignoring them, Mr. Herbst has resorted to personally disparaging Ms. Stern and publicly questioning her character.

Mr. Herbst does not even seem to acknowledge that Ms. Stern, with her years of service and familiarity with THA, and with the unanimous support of the non-Herbst commissioners, might have been right in her conclusions and that he should perhaps think twice before replacing her and undermining her work. Even if she were wrong, this is an unconscionable way to treat a long-time volunteer. Mr. Herbst should apologize, immediately and sincerely, and most of all publicly, to Ms. Stern and the rest of the commissioners.

As to me, Mr. Herbst has publically impugned my fitness to practice my profession. This is not a political dispute – this is my livelihood, my family's primary means of support, and a career I have spent years building. I sincerely hope he recognizes that he has crossed a line in this instance and issues an immediate retraction, and a retraction free of qualifications, explanations, justifications or equivocations.