Contrary to what New Canaan’s highest elected official asserted in a public statement that also contains factual errors, the head of the appointed town body that took up an ethics complaint lodged against him led a fair and nonpartisan investigation, its members say.
Tucker Clauss, while serving as chair of the Ethics Board, “made extreme efforts to go right down the middle” in following up on a complaint lodged last November against First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, according to Ethics Board member Robert Schott.
“When we went to talk to the complainant, he [Clauss] took somebody from that side of the aisle with him,” Schott said during the Ethics Board’s regular meeting, held Tuesday night at Town Hall.
“When he went to talk to the recipient, he took somebody from that side of the aisle with him. And we gave equal time to both sides of the equation. … For the record, I think it was done fairly, openly and in a nonpartisan fashion.”
Schott cited a letter that Moynihan sent to NewCanaanite.com after the Ethics Board voted 4-1 in favor of a final “Report and Determination” at its May 12 special meeting, with Schott himself casting the dissenting vote (the 15-page document can be read in full here).
In that report, the Ethics Board detailed its monthlong process of discussing the complaint and gathering up information prior to concluding that further investigation was warranted, as well as the communications, additional documentation, public discussion and findings that followed.
In the end, the Board concluded that the letterhead Moynihan had used on a widely distributed endorsement letter backing Republican candidates for the Board of Education last fall appeared “more like the letterhead of an official document than a letterhead serving as a mere identifier and that an appearance of impropriety was caused by its use, particularly when the Letter was to be sent to new residents or new voters who would likely have had little experience with Town officials, Town politics or official town letterhead or correspondence.”
Yet the Code of Ethics, as written, lacks a “sufficiently clear standard” to cite Moynihan for a violation on that basis. So instead of citing him for a violation, the Ethics Board issued guidance that “from hence forward any written or electronic political or campaign communication by an elected or appointed official or Town employee that uses, mimics, or resembles an official Town document, letterhead or format, whether it be official letterhead, official minutes or notices or other official documents in which the Town’s authority is being demonstrated or exercised, will presumptively be considered a use of a Town asset and/or a Town position for purposes of examining such use under the Ethics Code.”
Moynihan targeted Clauss in his own letter, saying the chair should have recused himself and that he also “failed to obtain independent legal advice for the Board about the Complaint,” “unilaterally decided not to consult Town Attorney Ira Bloom because he concluded that the Town Attorney was conflicted” and “refused to hire alternative counsel as he was authorized to do under the Town Code”—all factually inaccurate assertions, according to the Ethics Board.
Ethics Board member Steve Simon noted that “the first selectman has made the statement that we didn’t even consult with the town attorney, and I don’t think that’s true at all.”
“I think Tucker [Clauss] did talk and he [Bloom] said ‘I work for the town, I can’t be of help to you,’ ” Simon said.
Schott said, “And we did ask the town for outside counsel, but decided in the end that we didn’t need it and it would be an additional expense.”
Ethics Board Secretary Tammie Garner said, “It’s unfortunate that what was published was something that we actually cannot respond to as a Board when there were factual errors also in that statement.”
Schott said he personally has had “about six or seven of the local members of the party come up to me and ask the inner workings of the decision process in the belief that it was not fair.”
Asked whether those people had actually read the Board’s full Report and Determination, Schott said, “Of course not.”
“It’s like a Supreme Court decision—you get the decision, you don’t read the entire set of briefs,” he said.
The Ethics Board’s discussion came after the group voted on a new chair. (Clauss had said at the outset, after the Moynihan ethics complaint came in, that his time on the Board was expiring and he would resign when it concluded—he did so on May 16, according to a resignation letter on file at the Town Clerk’s office.)
The Ethics Board voted 3-0 to elect Alexandra Van Nes as the new chair, while she herself abstained, and also voted 3-0 to re-elect Garner as secretary.
Schott said that one of the party members who approached him about the investigation asked, “Where in the Code does it say this?”
“And I said, ‘We believe we had jurisdiction that it was town property, was the way it was looked it, everything else was thrown out,’ ” Schott recalled. “And the decision process, I view, is effectively fair. I think Tucker ran a pretty fair and open discussion.”
Garner said that “the entire thing was open.”
“It was open,” she said. “What I’m hearing in that statement, it’s a question of our judgment in terms of interpreting our role and the result. That was a legal question that was raised by the respondent that we addressed openly and voted on.”
Schott said, “It may sound strange coming from me: I don’t want Tucker [Clauss] to be besmirched by the thought that he ran a partisan meeting. He did not.”
Van Nes said, “He absolutely didn’t, in my opinion. Right down the middle.”
Garner told Schott she felt bad “that people are speaking to you directly about it.”
“Fortunately for me, people are not reaching out to me,” Garner said. “But we all anticipated that potential, which also is why as a Board we, upfront, were so adamant about making sure this was as fairly handled, as apolitical as possible. Those are things, too, that people didn’t hear. Initially we had to review everything in executive session.”
She said Schott should tell the Republicans approaching him “to read the opinion, which by the way is incredibly thorough, very long and detailed and will answer everything.”
“That’s the thing people just need to take the time to actually read it,” Garner said.
The Ethics Board members’ statements are not the first time that public officials have called out Moynihan for making misrepresentations.
Last October, Selectman Nick Williams flagged comments that Moynihan had made with respect to supposed support from the superintendent of schools and head of the New Canaan Athletic Foundation regarding construction of a new police station where a Saxe Middle School baseball diamond now sits. Last January, the town clerk described comments Moynihan had made regarding municipal record-keeping as “misinformation” and “misleading.” Earlier that same month, Moynihan disputed a report made a Parking Commissioner that a fellow member of the volunteer body had been blindsided by the town’s decision to not reappoint her. And in the early months of the pandemic, then-Emergency Management Director Mike Handler said Moynihan lied about the circumstances of his dismissal from the role.
The Ethics Board’s next regular meeting is scheduled for Aug. 9.
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