Board of Education seeks town reimbursement for ethics complaint legal fees

The details of a dismissed ethics complaint, involving school officials, remain confidential but the Board of Education is picking up legal bills, to the tune of $18,800.

After getting an opinion from legal counsel at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, the board unanimously agreed to pay the legal bills three of the officials incurred during the Ethics Commission investigation: Board Chairman Stephen Wright, recently retired Superintendent Ralph Iassogna and Steven Kennedy, head of custodial and maintenance services. Wright recused himself from the discussion and vote.

While covering the bills passed easily, a 3-2 vote approving the board request to seek reimbursement for the $18,800 from the town, through supplemental appropriation, passed with a some disagreement and tension between board members.

“This is the logical consequence of the town making a very bad decision,” board Democrat Lisa Labella said of seeking reimbursement for the legal fees.

Town Auditor James Henderson filed the complaint, which also involved facilities manager Al Barbarotta and Jim Nugent, chairman of the Trumbull High School Building Committee. The details of the complaint are confidential, but on June 22, after hours of testimony, the commission ruled there was a lack of probable cause to proceed.

Barbarotta made a public statement during Tuesday’s meeting, voicing his support for fellow members accused in the dismissed complaint, saying they deserve an apology from the town.

Board Vice Chair Deborah Herbst said she agreed with the legal opinion that the board should cover the fees but both Herbst and fellow Republican board member Loretta Chory were against seeking reimbursement from the town.

“As a board member I want to indemnify and move forward,” Herbst said.

The Board of Education’s attorney, Floyd Dugas, told the board that officials involved in the complaint asked for his legal counsel in the ethics investigation, but he recommended they get separate counsel, which they did. Dugas said that a statute protecting Board of Education employees and members from personal liability in lawsuits and issues like an ethics investigation, is also quite clear that the board should cover legal costs of those members.

“Our opinion is these gentlemen are entitled to be indemnified by the board,” Dugas said.

Board Democrat Tom Kelly said he felt the board had a “solemn duty” to stand up for fellow board members and employees charged with what he called a “baseless” and “frivolous” complaint. He hailed Wright, Kennedy and Iassogna for their dedication to Trumbull schools.

“Mr. Iassogna served this town 39 years, and then 11 days before he retires he is served with an ethics complaint,” Kelly said. “These are our people and we have to stand up for them.”

Deborah Herbst argued that the discussion needed to stay on the topic of indemnification and not veer off onto the ethics complaint, since no one knows the details.

Kelly made the motion to seek the special appropriation from the town, arguing that the town’s complaint is causing the schools to lose money for education.

“That money was designated for our students,” Kelly said.

“There are many financial issues that pop up throughout the year and in those instances we find the money,” Herbst countered.

Kelly’s motion for the special appropriation passed, with support from Rosemary Seaman and Labella. Board member Michael Ward was absent from Tuesday’s meeting. The special appropriation request will go before the Board of Finance.

Kelly also urged facilities manager Al Barbarotta to seek reimbursement for his legal fees as well, since he works for the Board of Education.

“I value the amount of time you served this board,” Kelly told Barbarotta at the meeting.

Barbarotta’s statement

Before the Board of Education tackled the legal fees issue, Barbarotta read a letter into the record, saying he thinks the other men involved in the complaint deserve an apology.

“These four men and I have a distinguished combined service record of over 125 years serving the Trumbull Board of Education,” Barbarotta said.

Barbarotta touted the accomplishments of all four men involved in the complaint, including Building Committee Chair Jim Nugent and Board Chair Stephen Wright, who are both volunteers.

“These alleged complaints against these two distinguished town volunteers cannot go unpunished,” Barbarotta said. “Someone needs to be held accountable for wasting taxpayers time and money. A formal apology is certainly in order.”

Barbarotta also criticized the town for involving Steve Kennedy, who has worked for the schools for 31 years, and Iassogna, who was close to retirement.

“Attempting to tarnish Ralph’s 39 years with 11 days left on his contract is appalling and certainly cannot go unpunished,” Barbarotta said.

Barbarotta has filed a lawsuit against First Selectman Timothy Herbst, claiming “tortious interference” in his company, AFB Management’s, contract with Trumbull Loves Children Inc. Herbst has called the lawsuit “baseless” and said he was targeted for trying to enforce the town ethics code. Herbst has also questioned the facilities manager’s handling of snow removal.

The facilities manager has said he believes the first selectman was behind the ethics complaint, which Herbst has denied.

Barbarotta, who is a Trumbull resident and has worked with the Board of Education since 1986, said he will continue to do his job.

“Since the alleged ethics violations were also dismissed in my case, I intend to continue to meet the obligations of my contract and thus serve the taxpayers and students of this town,” Barbarotta said. “I am not looking for an apology, I am looking for justice.”