Kelly rebuked by Ethics Commission; Herbst calls for resignation
Following a decision by Trumbull’s Ethics Commission that finds Board of Finance Democrat Tom Kelly violated the Code of Ethics for remarks he made about the town’s internal auditor, James Henderson, First Selectman Timothy Herbst is calling for Kelly’s resignation. Herbst is urging Kelly to resign from both from the finance board and as chair of the Democratic Town Committee.
Henderson, who filed the complaint, withdrew it in April, threatening Kelly with a civil lawsuit, but the commission decided to proceed with a hearing on the complaint.
“When public officials are unanimously sanctioned by a board that renders an opinion and uses words like ‘reckless’ ‘irresponsible’ and ‘unfair’ — every resident should take notice,” Herbst said.
Kelly, who said he has no plans to resign, said the process has been a learning experience, and he takes the decision seriously, even though he disagrees.
“I won’t criticize the Ethics Commission — they have a tough job to do,” Kelly said. “I will say I disagree with the decision of the commission and I question its legitimacy.”
The basis of the complaint, filed in January, is comments made by Kelly at an Oct. 28, 2013 meeting of the Board of Education, of which Kelly was an elected member at the time. The board was meeting to discuss a report by Henderson, and several board members were questioning many of the facts and research in the report, which some said was the basis of another ethics complaint focusing on the town’s Facilities Manager, Al Barbarotta of AFB. That complaint was later dismissed. At the meeting, Kelly discussed public court records of a lawsuit Henderson filed against a former employer, saying that the ruling showed Henderson was dismissed for poor performance.
“Mr. Kelly questioned my competency and made false statements regarding my prior work experience,” Henderson’s complaint reads.
Henderson said Kelly’s comments were incorrect and violated a section of the charter that reads: “Officials and employees will conduct themselves with propriety, discharge their duties impartially and fairly, and make continuing efforts toward attaining and maintaining the highest standards of performance.”
On May 12, the Ethics Commission, by unanimous vote, found that Kelly had violated the Trumbull Code of Ethics. In the ruling, the commission said that Kelly’s remarks were inaccurate, unfair and irresponsible.
“It is clear from Judge Eginton’s opinion that Mr. Henderson’s job performance at EBM-Papst was unsatisfactory, and that EBM-Papst could have dismissed him for poor performance had it chosen to do so,” the commission decision said of Henderson’s previous lawsuit. “However, it chose instead to characterize Mr. Henderson’s termination “as part of restructuring” and therefore, Mr. Kelly’s remarks in that regard were inaccurate.”
The commission also ruled that Kelly should have spoken with Mr. Henderson or his former employer before making his comments publicly and that Kelly saying Henderson lacked credibility was unfair.
Kelly, for his part said he spoke to attorney Stephen Wright, then the Board of Education chair, before making the comments, to be sure he properly understood the summary judgment from the lawsuit.
“If I had made a mistake about this, I would have gone up to Mr. Henderson, shook his hand and apologized,” Kelly said. “But this was the conclusion I drew and it was said in good faith.”
Kelly said his concerns were legitimate and he was defending the school staff and officials who were criticized in Henderson’s report.
“I spoke to my priest about this and went to confession,” Kelly said of the complaint. “Bearing false witness against my neighbor was not one of my sins. My conscience is clear.”
Kelly also said he was denied his right to cross-examine Henderson at two hearings, which is a right given in the Town Charter. Henderson failed to appear May 7 and May 9, even though he was subject to a subpoena, served by Kelly.
“It is very important to note that the charter of the Town of Trumbull guarantees the unconditional right to anyone who has been charged with an ethics complaint the ability to confront his accuser and cross-examine any witnesses against him,” Kelly said in a statement. “Although this is expressly stated in the charter, I was not afforded this right.
‘Far from over’
First Selectman Herbst said he is calling for Kelly’s resignation, not based solely on the Ethics Commission decision. Herbst said this is not the first time Kelly has done something like this, but it is the first time he has been sanctioned.
“It’s a cumulative action,” Herbst said. “His action before the Ethics Commission has cost the town of Trumbull thousands of dollars, in his attempt to turn this into a circus.”
Herbst said he will present the cost to the Board of Finance. Herbst also noted that Henderson could pursue further legal action.
“This is far from over,” Herbst said. “On top of that Mr. Kelly actually had the audacity to submit his legal bills to the Board of Education, requesting reimbursement. He later withdrew that action, but for someone who frequently opines what he perceives to be taxpayer money wasted, this legal fees request is nonsense.”
Kelly noted that school officials were reimbursed for legal fees, following a previous ethics complaint and he had submitted his fees following Henderson’s withdrawal of the complaint. He since withdrew his request for reimbursement.
Kelly has been a vocal critic of the Herbst administration and started the online forum Eye on Trumbull, now a Facebook page. Herbst and his fellow Republicans have also been vocal critics of Kelly. Last November, Republicans sent out mailers showing Kelly lighting a cigar with $100 bills.
“I think he needs to resign as chair of the Democratic Party and Board of Finance,” Herbst said. “This is very embarrassing for the town.”
Kelly said he has no plans to resign.
“I take it to heart and I wear it as a badge of honor,” Kelly said of the decision. “For four years I fought for the school system, Trumbull kids and the best education we can provide. I’m proud of my record.”