CONTRACTGATE: THE MUCK GETS MUCKIER … STATE ETHICS COMMISSION TO LYNN WHITNEY: IN EFFECT, ‘YOU HAVE A CONFLICT OF INTEREST’ … SHE FAILS TO MEET FOUR OF THE FIVE REQUIREMENTS … MATTER IS NOW IN CITY COUNCIL’S HANDS, AND COUNCIL NEEDS TO DO THE RIGHT THING FOR MARY JANE AND JOE KAPANSKI
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, WEDNESDAY, OCT. 3, 2012) — The muck gets muckier in Contractgate.
After using her position as asst. supt. Frank Cote‘s secretary for the inside track, Lynn Whitney was “awarded” the contract for free slave labor, courtesy of Taconic High School carpentry students, to build her McMansion in Pittsfield. Hers was one of only two bids received, since Cote placed the ad without the approval or knowledge of central purchasing or the school business manager. That help to assure limited competition (what, you think free construction of a house would be popular and something more people would like to win?).
More unbelievably, the Pittsfield School Committee, all except Terry Kinnas and Mayor Dan Bianchi, voted to ratify the contract. Alf Barbalunga, Kathy Yon, Kathleen Amuso, Jim Conant, and Dan Elias saw no problem, hence their “yes” vote on Aug. 22. Keep in mind that Kinnas objected without knowing of the cozy relationship between Cote and Whitney. He noticed that while the ad specified the students would do no roofing work, the contract listed roofing as the first in a long list of duties students would have to perform.
[NOTE: THE PLANET has contacted the five school committee members who voted to “approve” the contract. We sent inquiries to them on Sunday night. We have heard from Yon and Amuso, explaining their votes. We shall post all responses tomorrow.]
Ratify and Hang or Reject and be Toasted
The next day, Kinnas began a dogged and solitary pursuit of justice, meeting with city solicitor Kathy Degnan for the first of four visits. The contract was subsequently rewritten and sent to the city council. In the meantime and following the council meeting, the school committee followed the council up with a second rewrite — the third version — of the contract. Apparently, Cote and Whitney’s strategy is to keep rewriting this bad deal until the council caves. That’s where the matter stands: In the hands of the city council, which shall next meet one week from today.
The council has one of two choices: ratify or reject. If it chooses the former, there will be no accounting for the political damage done to any member who thinks this Cote-Whitney deal is on the level or projects the best image that operations in official Pittsfield are on the up-and-up. If it rejects, it will have done the right thing for Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski and will have made a bold statement about this sort of “business-as-usual” corruption.
Sometime after the Aug. 22 vote and the speed-bump caused by Kinnas’ due diligence on behalf of taxpayers, Whitney sought an after-the-fact opinion from the State Ethics Commission on her wheeling and dealing. On Sept. 4, she received a four-page, single-spaced letter back, stamped “CONFIDENTIAL.” THE PLANET has obtained a copy.
State Ethics Commission to Whitney: No Dice, Sister
After a restatement of the facts, Amy Bresslet Nee, a staff counselor for the SEC, writes to Whitney:
“Under [Section] 20 of the conflict of interest law, while you serve as a municipal employee of the City of Pittsfield, you may not have a financial interest, directly or indirectly, in a contract made by the City.” … As a consequence of this contract … you will enjoy considerable savings because the carpentry students will supply a significant amount of labor for free and you would otherwise have to pay for it.
“There is no exemption under [Section] 20 that will allow you to have a financial interest in a contract made by the School Department. The exemption that most full-time employees need to use is [Section] 20(b). To use this exemption, you must meet every one of the following requirements:
“1) You are not already employed by the agency that will make the contract (“the contracting agency);
“2.) You are not employed by any agency which[sic] regulates the activities of the contracting agency;
“3) In your municipal position, you do not participate in or have official responsibility for any of the activities of the contracting agency;
“4) The contract is made after public notice or, where applicable, through competitive bidding;
“5) You must file a disclosure with the City Clerk explaining your financial interest and the interest of your immediate family in the contract.”
The letter goes on to say that Whitney meets only one of the five requirements, #4. THE PLANET laughs at that, because the original ad by Cote didn’t constitute much “public” notice. Yes, technically it was “public notice,” but for practical purposes, next to none at all. Subsequently, Cote filed a disclosure with the city clerk’s office revealing her financial interest in the contract, 5) above. Linda Tyer confirmed that Whitney filed this letter well after the fact. The clerk’s office stamped the disclosure on Sept. 21, its effective date, or a month after the school committee initially approved the deal. With an apparent conflict of interest this obvious, wouldn’t you think that an honest, upright citizen would file with the SEC early in the process, even in April or May, just to be certain and to avoid any perception of wrongdoing?
This, Again, Is Pittsfield, Where Unethical is ‘Ethical’ and Illegal is ‘Legal’
The letter goes on to say that Whitney fails to qualify under “[a] second exemption” because the work is being done for free. Also, Nee advises Whitney, under [Section] 19 of the conflict of interest law, that she is ruled out because she has a direct financial interest in the contract. The free labor has been estimated at anywhere between $60,000 and $150,000 dollars.
With the relatively new conflict of interest law being so publicized, its virtually unthinkable that Whitney could have thought that, without disclosure, her contract with the school department would be legal or ethical.
Then again, this is Pittsfield. She and Cote initiated this scheme in April under Supt. Jake Eberwein III, waited until the new acting superintendent, Gordon Noseworthy, came in with a full plate and not likely to notice, and counted on a compliant “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” school committee for the OK.
The plan worked perfectly, except for two things: Terry Kinnas won election to the school committee, and THE PLANET provides an alternative to the lame non-coverage in the Boring Broadsheet.
The emergence of cyberspace as a news alternative has changed the entire game in town: No longer can the GOB control the flow of information. Prior to THE PLANET, if “They” could control the BB, they could see that nothing they wanted to keep hidden would get out. Local radio doesn’t cover local news and the weekly newspapers are too limited in resources (Gazette) or too involved in rah-rah cheerleading (Advocate) to go after stories like this. THE PLANET has filled that gap, and that’s why more and more people are turning to us as their dominant media source.
SPEAKING OF BORING, WHERE HAS THE BROADSHEET BEEN IN CONTRACTGATE?
Several of this site’s commentators have wondered about a question being asked by many others: Where has the Boring Broadsheet been in Contractgate?
Absent, that’s where. The BB covers — we should say, “covers” — the city council and school committee meetings. Typically, they send scribe Dick Lindsay to the task, a reporter who hears no evil and sees no evil, even when it’s being committed right under his nose, as it was during the Aug. 22 school committee meeting. Journalism’s answer to drying paint hasn’t shown the least bit of interest in this story on his beat.
This glaring ignorance of and reluctance to cover stories that can make a difference in putting Pittsfield back on the right track would be bad enough in and of itself, but the BB has to make it worse by the stories it does cover — a collection of fluffery, puffery, PR, Chamber of Commerce cheerleading, and the like that bring irrelevance to new heights and journalistic integrity to new depths.
Having had its parent company gone belly up, and having been purchased at fire-sale prices by a holding company, the days of the physical newspaper, The Boring Broadsheet, are numbered. Free advice to my good friends who still work there: Get out while the getting is good.
BY HEAVEN, THOSE AUTHORS ARE OUR SEX’S FOES WHOM, IN OUR RIGHT, WE MUST AND DO OPPOSE.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.