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.
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.”