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Norwalk ethics commissioners look to block ‘abusive’ complaints

John Flynn, right, addresses the Norwalk Common Council Ordinance Committee, Tuesday in City Hall, as Board of Ethics member Haroldo Williams listens.

Correction: 2:17 p.m.: Wording on Donna Smirniotopoulos adjusted.

NORWALK, Conn. – Board of Ethics Commissioners support rule changes to prevent ethics complaints from being filed as a political weapon, three commissioners said Tuesday.

The ethics panel, comprised of three Republicans, two Democrats, and two unaffiliated voters, seeks discretion to dismiss complaints it considers groundless and to ban “vexatious” citizens from filing complaints.  People who publicize their complaints after taking an oath to keep them confidential would also be subject to the ban.

The Ordinance Committee unanimously voted to move ahead with the changes to Norwalk’s Code of Ethics and plans a public hearing at its next regularly scheduled meeting.

Ethics Commissioner Kara Murphy favors the changes.  “When you file an ethics complaint you are questioning someone’s integrity,” Murphy told the Common Council Ordinance Committee. “So, if someone throws an ethics complaint out there in the public eye and they don’t follow through on it, it’s going to be hard for that public official sometimes to recover on their reputation,” she said.

“We here take that seriously,” Board of Ethics Chairman Michael Church said. “I think sometimes in the political arena, people don’t take that as serious and think, ‘Let’s use (the Ethics Board) as a weapon,’” which wastes time and impedes work on legitimate complaints, Church said.

Church said that years ago, in a different town, people would announce that they were going to file an ethics complaint and then not do it or do it after an election.  The proposed changes were modeled largely after the state’s ethics statute, and the Board also studied ethics ordinances in other towns, including Stamford and Danbury, Church said.

John Flynn, speaking at the meeting, took credit for the changes.

“I filed 13 ethics complaints since Oct. 24th,” Flynn said. “I understand that you might think I’m a pain in the ass, but my son was strangled in my driveway and I don’t have the police report.”

Flynn, who has a lengthy history of unsuccessful lawsuits in which he represents himself, said his son was 15 when attacked and is 22 and fine, now. But 1,200 checks were stolen, one for $249,250, and there are 300,000 felonies related to his ethics complaints.

The latter allegations are material to the complaints, he said.  They are also integral to many of Flynn’s lawsuits, which have alleged that Norwalk Police covered up the alleged felonies, and that former Gov. Dannel Malloy hired a hit man to kill him.

Flynn said the language of the changes shows that they are aimed at him.  “It is quite obvious to me that they believe I’m this vexatious guy. I had a brokerage firm. All the assets were stolen. All my clients lost all their assets,” Flynn said.

“I took an oath (to maintain confidentiality), I know,” he said.  Flynn then named someone in the room as the subject of one of his ethics complaints and accused that person of further improprieties.

Flynn has also made many Facebook posts about his ethics complaints.  On Tuesday he said the Ethics Board is required to take action within 21 days, but six months have passed since a complaint with “nothing.”

“As Mr. Flynn alluded… we did add language as to dealing with vexatious filers,” Murphy said.

Under the proposal, the Board would be able to review complaints and decide whether to accept them, she said.  “I can’t say too much more about the background behind why we have that here,” she added.

Norwalk Board of Ethics members, from left: Kara Murphy, Chairman Michael Church, Haroldo Williams and Nora Niedzielski-Eichner, Tuesday in City Hall.

Church said that ethics complaints should be accompanied by supporting documentation, and if they aren’t, the Board would like the discretion not to form an investigative panel, which takes time and prevents consideration of legitimate complaints.  “We just want to make sure that they don’t abuse the system,” Church said.

“If it’s a legitimate complaint that person should be able to come up with that documentation,” Murphy said. “As opposed to: it’s somebody using the complaint as a sword to hurt someone” without evidence.

Existing rules require that complaints be kept confidential.  Under the planned changes, violation of confidentiality would be grounds to dismiss the complaint and perhaps ban the complainant.

“The complaints have always been confidential, but as you are all well aware, sometimes these things wind up on the front page of the Norwalk Hour and they are not supposed to,” Murphy said. “So, we put more teeth into the language so there was actual consequence to breaking confidentiality.”

Real estate broker Jason Milligan recently sought news coverage of an ethics complaint that was allegedly filed anonymously.  Shortly thereafter, the Hour published a front-page story on the complaint.  Donna Smirniotopoulos in May claimed that she filed an ethics complaint and told the public via a comment online.

“If you are serious about making a genuine complaint, you make it, it’s confidential. If you are using it as a weapon for public consumption, then it is not intended for us to review.  We want to have teeth, that somebody doesn’t take it lightly,” Church said.

Some of the language in the new ordinance is purposely vague, leaving the Board discretion to work out specifics which will prevent someone from gaming the system, Church said.

Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said it bothered him that someone could be permanently banned; Council member Michael Corsello (D-At Large) replied that he supported the option of a ban for an “egregious breach.”

Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) suggested taking out the language that would permanently ban someone from filing a complaint, and leave it at the panel’s discretion.

“You have impressed me throughout this, your diligence and thoughtfulness,” Livingston said. “I know you guys aren’t going to be around forever, but I am comfortable to give you guys that discretion.”

“It’s not like we’re receiving an overwhelming amount of complaints, but we are trying to prevent having individuals submit so many complaints that when we do have valid complaints, we can’t address them because we have a queue of junk,” Ethics Commissioner Haroldo Williams said.

“The purpose of the Board of Ethics is to not be used as a weapon,” Church said. “If you are genuine about there being a violation, we do that that seriously.”

12 comments

Bryan Meek April 18, 2019 at 7:11 am

This is the same Board of Ethics that saw no issue with an elected official voting on a contract that directly benefitted immediate relatives. The same individual who would not recuse herself from that vote, later went on to threaten to assault another elected official. The ethics board took no action.

Why even have an ethics board?

Jason Milligan April 18, 2019 at 8:05 am

So this board quietly, secretly can determine if someone is unethical?

But you can’t tell anyone.

And Mario Coppola is the Chairman of the Board of Ethics.

I have heard enough.

Jack April 18, 2019 at 8:14 am

Jason, there’s a committee that makes decisions, not one guy (a guy who’s clearly under your skin). A committee. Multiple people. Perhaps you should go talk to some of the people on the ethics committee like you’re always asking people on here to come talk to you when they’re concerned about something you’re doing…..maybe you’ll realize it’s not a big conspiracy.

James Cahn April 18, 2019 at 8:31 am

This is too “light touch.” We need to eliminate the Board of Ethics altogether. Its very existence suggests a base distrust of our public officials. Can you imagine what it would be like if you felt like someone was constantly looking over your shoulder?

I suggest that we make it outright enforcably illegal for Jason Milligan, Donna Smirniotopoulos or John Flynn to voice their opposition to Norwalk’s political class. I mean do these people HONESTLY think that they should be allowed to oppose politicians openly and in a way that makes those politicians uncomfortable?

And how anyone imagines that there shouldn’t be a penalty for not keeping your critique secret is just totally beyond my understanding. It’s Josh Morgan’s role to discuss and manage Norwalk’s image on Facebook. Not Donna
Smirniotopoulos or Jason Milligan! Who do they think they are?

What Norwalk needs is a “white list” of people who are approved to offer suggestions that are helpful. Imagine how much easier it would be to be a Norwalk politician if you knew that you were only going to have to go to meetings with people who supported you, didn’t critique you, make you do “extra” work and only showed up with signs that said “Hooray for NORWALK’S POLITICIANS!” Maybe we can have very occasional, easy opposition but it should absolutely meet the requirements of being “appropriate,” as determined by the opposed.

People seriously need to stop. Some of these officials got votes into the THOUSANDS. The problems they are solving are impossible to solve without their expertise and experience. People like Milligan and Flynn are ENEMIES to the common population of Norwalk.

Norwalk’s government is “for the citizens of the town, appropriately, the ones that need it.”

#whitelistnow #savenorwalkpoliticians #banmilligan #banflynn #bandonna

Lisa Brinton April 18, 2019 at 9:18 am

When single party rule results in fewer checks and balances, democracy suffers – along with consequences for residents challenging the status quo. We’ve seen an uptick in common council executive sessions, where city business is decided outside the public eye, strategic ‘leaks’ of emails, ‘no comment’ taxpayer funded P&Z lawsuits or tax credits, (depending who you are) delayed public document FOIA requests and now a subjective ‘ethics’ policy which appears intended to squash opposition. I feared our politics and economy were moving in Bridgeport’s direction – but perhaps I should look further east.

Kurt Reply April 18, 2019 at 9:35 am

So in the end the Board of ethics will mullet it over before taking any actions including banning people? Hypocritical at best

Jason Milligan April 18, 2019 at 10:19 am

If they find someone guilty, what is the worst penalty the board of Ethics can hand down?

Would the punishment ever become public?

James you are very funny, but I fear some officials don’t understand your sarcasm and probably agree with your statements.

It’s 1984.

Jo Bennett April 18, 2019 at 10:49 am

@James, I was about to *ask* if your post was a satirical piece – and then saw Jason’s comment. Just sayin’…

Diane Lauricella April 18, 2019 at 1:59 pm

At the Ordinance Committee meeting during public comment section of the meeting, I (again) requested that a robust and innovative Ethics Commission public education and outreach campaign take place to help citizens determine if issues they experience meet the standards of unethical behavior. I also asked that in the near future that the public education portion, at least annually, be codified in the rules so that the need for public transparency would not just be determined by politics.

Interesting discussion here.

carol April 18, 2019 at 4:19 pm

so now we are going to lose freedom of speech,let anyone say what they wish against any and all politicians. if they don’t like it,then don’t run. you are in the public eye and the public has a right to address what they see as a wrong just as the politicians have a right to defend themselves.
how much more government and commission control are we going to have to live with????

EnoPride April 19, 2019 at 4:25 pm

How does Mario Coppola head up the Board of Ethics Commission if, since 2013, he is partly responsible for negligent decision making on POKO, the consequence of which produced a negative ROI, unfinished, rotten building which is UNETHICALLY sucking down taxpayer dollars, and killing small businesses and revitalization at our city’s heart for an unacceptable amount of time. How does Coppola still hold a city job, let alone lord power over a Board of Ethics Commission which, if it was run by a different individual who prioritized protecting small business owners and taxpaying stakeholders, would be questioning the actions/ethics of one Mario Coppola? That the majority of Norwalkers have NO IDEA that this stuff goes on right under their noses, and that we have a current administration that is just fine with a 30% voter turnout for local elections and the majority of Norwalk residents’ blissful unawareness, is highly upsetting. Please vote for change this November, Norwalk!

Coppola’s team is wanting to rewrite the rules and censor/permanently ban certain people’s ethics complaints to fit their own agenda. The most high profile, ethically concerning issue going in Norwalk is their leaders’ involvement in the secretive POKO goings on and the taxpayer money at play there. We still have not gotten the truthful POKO explanation from the mayor or Mario. Maybe a Norwalk residents’ ethics complaint about POKO should get a Fast Pass to the top of their pile where it rightly belongs? Oh, wait. That’s a no go. Under these new rules, its issuers stand a chance of being permanently banned at Mario’s discretion! Poof! Bye-Bye! Huge conflict of interest here! Abuse of power, too.

“Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) suggested taking out the language that would permanently ban someone from filing a complaint, and leave it at the panel’s discretion.”

If that language is omitted in the new rules as the above quote suggests, but the commission will go on to permanently ban people whose complaints THEY consider groundless behind closed doors, regardless of that omission of the written rule, then Mr. Livingston is greenlighting the commission to break their own rules? Ah, Who cares about rules and rights of Norwalkers anyway, Mr. Livingston?

Comical that one commissioner quoted in the article somewhat trivialized all of this drama and made it more suspect by stating that The Board of Ethics Commission doesn’t even get an overwhelming volume of complaints. The other quoted commissioner was concerned that the truth about certain officials was leaking out to The Hour of all places and could harm reputations, essentially revealing the real reason for rewriting the rules to give her power to ban and silence “selective” issuers of complaints. Damage control during campaign season.

We, The People, of opposing views to those of City Hall, have regularly been dismissed and flat out shut down at countless public hearings, and we have been labeled “Naysayers”. Now, our citizens issuing an underwhelming amount of ethics complaints are being generalized as “vexatious”? Not sure about some of you readers, but I am getting tired of fellow constituents being publicly dismissed, called names, and soon to be, if this commission and Common Council have their way, which of course they will, censored and permanently banned by our city government to cover the hides of certain individuals at City Hall. I am thoroughly convinced now that Mario Coppola cannot be trusted and does not have the best interest of Norwalk’s residents at heart. The more antics which can be traced to him, the more crystal clear this becomes.

Out with the old and in with the new. Vote for change this November, Norwalk! Let’s work on getting more residents informed and engaged to go to the polls and stop this inappropriate, stakeholder unfriendly way of conducting business which has become the norm at City Hall.

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