West Haven alderman and fire commissioner Robert Bruneau used his elected position as West Shore Fire District Chief to authorize contracts and payments for a business owned by his wife and son.
Financial records obtained by the Connecticut Mirror show that Bruneau personally signed two business deals and dozens of bills his son submitted to the fire district, which provides fire protection to a quarter of West Haven’s approximately 55,000 residents.
The documents reveal that Bruneau – along with his two fellow fire marshals – approved more than $81,000 in payments to Bruneau’s garage, which he and his family have owned and operated for more than a decade.
This money was reportedly paid to the garage in exchange for the company repairing and maintaining the fire district’s snowplow truck, lifeboat, blue and white fire trucks and emergency generators. of its two fire stations.
Invoices show Bruneau’s son billed the fire district a flat rate of $1,500 a month to cover labor costs and tens of thousands of dollars more to supply belts, batteries, hydraulic hoses, brake pads, air filters, oil filters, water pumps and door latches. for fire trucks.
The records highlight how Bruneau — who was also recently singled out in a state audit that looked at questionable spending by the West Haven city government — signed more than half of the 46 bills that were submitted to the district. fires in the past two years. This put him in a position where he audited the parts and services the family business billed the fire district.
As chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners, Bruneau has significant influence over West Shore’s $11 million annual budget, and he helps decide which contractors do business with the fire district, which operates independently of the government of the town of West Haven.
West Shore Fire District chief Stephen Scafariello said Bruneau’s Garage was chosen in July 2020 to service the department’s fire trucks and other equipment following a public bidding process. He said the company won the contract because no other company responded to an advertisement in the West Haven Voice, a hyper-local newspaper published every two weeks.
Yet ethics experts have said Bruneau’s involvement in contracts and payments to the family business represents a direct conflict of interest, regardless of how the procurement process works or how many companies are involved. submitted offers.
“If you’re signing invoices for matters involving your business or your immediate family’s business, that’s a clear conflict,” said Peter Lewandowski, executive director of the Connecticut State Office of Ethics. .
Lewandowski and other State Ethics Office staff play no role in the enforcement of ethics laws within municipalities or any other local government in Connecticut. But he said Bruneau’s actions would almost certainly run counter to any ethics policy in place for the fire district.
State, local and federal ethics codes, Lewandowski said, all prohibit individuals from using their government offices to take official action that benefits themselves or their family members. The same goes for many corporate codes of conduct.
“It’s really Ethics 101,” Lewandowski said.
Scafariello, the fire chief, confirmed via email that the West Shore Fire District had a code of ethics in place, but he and a fire district attorney did not immediately provide that policy to TB. Mirror.
‘Start as usual’
Bruneau, who was first elected fire commissioner in 2017 and a West Haven city councilor since 2020, said he had never seen this code of ethics until the CT Mirror contacted the fire district this month, and he said he didn’t. knew it was inappropriate for him to sign checks payable to the family business.
“I saw nothing wrong with it at the time, and now that it has been brought to our attention, about an ethical situation, we would certainly look to do things a little differently in the future,” did he declare.
Bruneau said he and his family had worked on the West Shore Fire District fire trucks for years — long before he was commissioner, when he served as the department’s superintendent.
His family’s businesses, he added, also worked for West Haven’s two other fire districts and the city’s police department.
“It’s just something we did from the beginning,” he said, “and my family did it for decades, to be totally honest with you. So when it happened and no one bid, I really didn’t realize that would be a problem. For us, it was like nothing had happened.”
Bruneau said none of the actions he took were meant to be “underhanded”, and he said he was “devastated” and “heartbroken” that anyone would question his motives or the integrity of his family.
“There was nothing – no intention here – of being directed to any family member,” he said. “I do a lot for the police. I do a lot for firefighters. It was never about money. This is the most worrying thing for us, because we do more for nothing than what we charge them. »
“It was just an oversight. It didn’t undermine anything,” he added. “The only thing I ever did was worry about the West Shore Fire Department. and to keep West Shore residents safe.”
Other elected leaders who represent West Haven residents said Bruneau’s decision to approve payments to the family business casts a bad light on the fire district and could further damage public trust, which has already been put on probation in West Haven following an ongoing investigation. federal criminal investigation.
“While I understand the contract went through the proper bidding process, as an elected official you should not be involved in discussions or voting on contracts that benefit you or your family” , said Rep. Dorinda Borer, D-West. Haven, said. “Commissioners must recuse themselves from these actions in order to eliminate any questions about the appropriateness of the process.”
State Representative Charles Ferraro, R-West Haven, expressed a similar view. And he argued that Bruneau had to decide what was more important to him: his family’s businesses or his elective office.
“If you’re going to be in this position, you need to know when to recuse yourself,” said Ferraro, who represents most property tax payers in the West Shore Fire District. “I don’t think the public likes to hear that people who are in a position to make contract decisions are awarding those contracts to family members. I don’t think people want to hear that.
“You know, my opinion is that you have to decide whether to be a businessman or a politician,” Ferraro added. “It’s either one or the other, but you can’t be both.”
“Accusations and contempt”
This isn’t the first time a business owned by Bruneau and his family has caught the public eye in West Haven.
Bruneau, a two-term city councilman, has also found himself in the spotlight in recent months after public records revealed West Haven city officials used federal pandemic relief funding to pay Chip’s Wrecker Service – another business in his family – over $19,000.
That money, according to city records, was to compensate the company for delivering food during the pandemic, renting equipment to the city, and cleaning up after COVID-related events.
But earlier this year, a forensic audit commissioned by the Office of State Policy and Management determined that the money received by the Bruneau company was an ineligible use of federal pandemic relief funds. .
Auditors argued that the invoices and other financial documents used to support those expenses did not provide enough detail about the type of work Bruneau’s company performed in exchange for the money.
More so, the audit suggested the state should take a closer look at other business relationships Bruneau had with the West Haven government, which he helped lead for the past two years.
Auditors made the recommendation after city financial records revealed that three companies controlled by Bruneau had been paid at least $170,000 from city bank accounts in the past. These payments, the auditors explained, should be reviewed to determine if they were a “valid” use of taxpayers’ money.
In response to the audit, Bruneau hired a lawyer to defend his businesses and reputation, and at a stormy city council meeting in April he had a letter from his lawyer read aloud to West Haven voters. .
In the letter – which was addressed to the state-hired auditing firm – the attorney said all business dealings between the city and Bruneau’s companies were above board. And he argued that Bruneau’s business history was ‘flawless’ and his character ‘spotless’.
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“Although you have not accused Mr. Bruneau of any criminal or ethical act, the insinuation is dangerous and unfair,” the letter read. “This led to my client receiving accusations and scorn from articles in the newspapers and on social media.”
Nothing has been done since then to further explore Bruneau’s business relationship with the West Haven city government, although the OPM and the State’s Municipal Accountability Review Board are in the process of investigating. step up their oversight of the city’s finances.
A spokesperson for the state agency said any decisions on further investigations into city spending and finances would need to be approved by the full MARB board.
“All matters relating to the city’s governance and fiscal management will be reviewed in due course and will be governed by applicable law,” OPM spokesman Chris Collibee said.
Ferraro, the West Haven Republican lawmaker, said he believes additional investigations are warranted, given the public mistrust that continues to plague the city.
“Daylight must shine on everything in the city of West Haven,” Ferraro said. “I think everything should be on the table.”
Andrew Brown is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (https://ctmirror.org/ ). Copyright 2022 © The Connecticut Mirror.