The Town Council chair violated the Code of Ethics by mixing use of his own Realtor’s email account and promotion of a real estate panel with use of a town videoconferencing tool, New Canaan’s highest elected official said.
Town Council Chair John Engel on May 17 promoted the panel through his Halstead email account, and in that email blast noted that the event would be held on a town Zoom account that was the same one he’d been using in his capacity as a public official, in a time slot that had been used for daily COVID-19 updates.
In an email obtained by NewCanaanite.com through a public records request, First Selectman Kevin Moynihan after being forwarded the promotional blast said that Engel “can’t use the Town’s Zoom account for his private real estate business activities.”
In fact, Engel had already used the Zoom account for a “conflicting meeting” without notifying the first selectman’s office, Moynihan said in an email to Selectman Nick Williams, adding, “This is an Ethics Code violation even [if] the financial benefit is small presumably.”
Questions around Engel’s use of the Zoom account appeared to start immediately after the promotional email went out of his Halstead address. Williams forwarded Moynihan the promotional blast that same morning, with a note saying: “I’m sorry, but isn’t this a mixing of a town resource/official position with a private business?”
Moynihan responded that Engel “has been indiscreet about building his email list for years.”
Moynihan said at first that he wasn’t sure Engel had committed a violation of the town Code of Ethics “when our email addresses are in the public domain.”
But when Williams responded that Engel was using the town Zoom account “to establish a daily virtual town ‘meeting’ in his capacity as Chairman of our Town Council” and that he now was using the virtual daily gathering “as part of an ad campaign,” Moynihan said, “He should get his own account for his business.”
Under New Canaan’s Code of Ethics, “No official or employee shall participate in any Town or Board matter in which he or she has a financial interest or a personal interest,” where “official” refers to both elected and appointed officials.
“A violation of this conflict of interest rule shall occur when … the official or employee had a financial interest or a personal interest in a matter,” it says.
Engel, first elected to the Town Council in 2013, could not be reached for comment.
Moynihan had questioned about Engel’s use of the town Zoom account when asked about it at a press briefing last month.
Asked during Thursday’s press briefing whether the matter had been referred to the town attorney for an opinion on whether or not Engel violated the Code of Ethics, Moynihan said no, though he had talked to the town attorney about it.
Asked whether the matter had been referred to the town’s Board of Ethics, Moynihan said no.
Asked if he has anything else to say on the matter, Moynihan said “it’s all in the emails.”
“I have nothing further to say,” Moynihan said.
The Town Council approved the Code of Ethics by unanimous vote in October 2017. (Engel was among those voting.)
New Canaan pays $2,430 annually for five Zoom accounts, officials say.
The Board of Ethics canceled its June 8 meeting and is next scheduled to meet Aug. 10.
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