by Mike Donoghue
GRAND ISLE — Grand Isle Town Clerk and Treasurer Melissa Boutin has been directed to “cease and desist” from using the municipality to get a discount for personal goods and services for herself, according to a new letter from the town attorney.
The letter, sent on behalf of the full selectboard, centers on a large load of crushed stone that was picked up on behalf of Boutin and delivered to her home on Adams Landing Road this summer, according to documents obtained through a Vermont Public Records request.
“It appears that the stone was invoiced to the Town, but you intercepted the invoice when it was received and paid for the stone you ordered on the Town’s account with a personal check,” wrote Town Attorney David W. Rugh.
“While your conduct in this instance may not rise to the level of a crime, it appears you misrepresented that the stone would be for Town purposes and should be invoiced as such,” he said.
“It is highly inappropriate for an elected official to employ the Town’s resources and discounts for one’s own personal use,” wrote Rugh of Stitzel, Page & Fletcher law firm in Burlington.
The 5 Selectboard members met with Rugh in secret session for more than a half hour at the end of its regular meeting on Oct. 16. They returned to public session with a motion that was approved 5-0 directing the town attorney to send a letter to the town clerk and treasurer.
The specific details nor even the general nature of the proposed letter was never disclosed to the audience before a quick adjournment was approved.
The Islander, a South Hero-based weekly newspaper, subsequently filed Vermont Public Records requests with both the Selectboard through its chair Jeff Parizo, and with Boutin, the intended letter recipient. The Islander sought copies of the directed letter and any relevant related documents.
Rugh’s letter does not say how much of a discount Boutin received and how much in government taxes she avoided paying by using the town account.
His letter also never mentions the potential trouble the town could get into with state and federal tax officials by somebody using Grand Isle’s tax exemption for a personal purchase.
Boutin used her own personal checking account to pay Beaver Creek Contracting of North Hero $350 for the 20 yards of stone on June 22, the public records show.
“I wish that it could have been handled in a different manner and (they) just asked,” Boutin said this week. “It would have been nice to have a decent conversation.”
Boutin is independently elected by town voters as both the clerk and the treasurer. The elected selectboard has almost no control over the two offices Boutin holds.
Included in the public records disclosure was an audio recording of Boutin calling Beaver Creek Contracting and asking for a load of stone that she said she would have picked up by a tractor trailer later that day.
She immediately identified herself as “Melissa calling from the town of Grand Isle” at the start of the one-minute recorded message when she ordered the stone. She left the phone number for the town clerk’s office twice and said she would have a tractor trailer arriving later that day to pick up the stone.
Boutin said on the recorded phone call that “We have done loads in the past and I believe it was at the town of Grand Isle’s pricing.”
No town trucks or employees were apparently used to transport the stone. Boutin said on the phone call she would have it picked up.
Rugh, in the cease-and-desist letter, told Melissa Boutin it was inappropriate as a town official to seek special treatment. The island town has a population of about 2,150 people.
“We can only assume you did this to receive the Town’s discounted rate for purchase of stone from this vendor for your personal use. To receive this discount, it appears you misrepresented initially that this purchase was for Town business and should be invoiced to the Town, but then misappropriated the stone for personal use,” Rugh wrote.
“Assuming our understanding is accurate, the Selectboard requests that you immediately cease and desist using the Town to obtain discounts for personal goods, services and materials,” he wrote. Rugh underlined the second half of the sentence.
The bill from Beaver Creek was addressed to “Town of Grand Isle” and was sent to the attention of Brad Sheridan. Sheridan is Grand Isle’s road foreman.
It appears from the blacked-out emails that Rugh got involved by September when Parizo sent him an email. The content of the email is blacked out.
In his public records response, Rugh also provided 14 files of emails. They contained about 30 emails — ranging from a single message to a string of exchanges.
While the public records requests were each made independently and specifically to Parizo, as chair, and Boutin, as the recipient of the letter, neither responded.
Instead Rugh, who also drafted the two-page letter, wrote to The Islander to say he was responding on behalf of both sides of the dispute.
Rugh blacked out almost all the various emails, including private messages exchanged between Parizo and one of the other selectboard members.
The greeting at the top of each email and signature line at the bottom of the emails were made public. Just about everything else was blacked out from the public in Rugh’s response.
Among the very few emails with content made public was an Oct. 18 note to Parizo, as chair, from a paralegal at Stitzel, Page & Fletcher saying the letter for Boutin “is on its way via UPS.”
Also released was a copy of the bill sent to the town in May, a copy of the personal check Boutin sent in June, and two photographs of Boutin’s home after the stones were delievered.
Professor Jared Carter of the Vermont Law School said licensed lawyers are urged in their legal practices to avoid representing competing interests at the same time during a legal dispute.
“The basic principle is that you should not represent concurrently two clients that have adverse interests to each other,” Carter told The Islander. He said there are rare exceptions that require an informed consent upon review.
Rugh’s disclosure letter failed to include the Public Records requirement about the name of the person the requestor can file the appeal for information that is withheld. Rugh did offer to talk with The Islander if it was unhappy with the blacked-out pages.
He did not respond to an email this week.
Carter acknowledged it is hard to offer to provide true transparency when a single lawyer is writing the letter on behalf of one town entity, but also representing the recipient of a the letter.
Rugh said he was responding on behalf of Boutin because he said he considers her the “records custodian.”
It is unclear where Boutin, as the town’s designated “records custodian,” plans to post the “Cease and Desist” letter for the public to have access.
The Grand Isle Selectboard did not mention the letter during its sparsely attended meeting Monday night. The letter also was not attached to the meeting minutes of Oct. 16 when approved this week.
Categories: Local government