It should come as no surprise that a small wave of gasps spread across the community when news about Tom Lombardi’s attorneys fees began to trickle in. One camp is championing Lombardi. How can an elected official expect to shoulder the cost when the charges didn’t even stick? The other camp is arguing that it shouldn’t be the town’s problem to defend someone from an ethics charge.
It’s a debate that’s been going on ever since the town’s code of ethics was first enacted. It’s a debate that seems to come up every time that an ethics charge reaches the public level. This was first argued publicly in 1988 when a member of the Planning and Zoning commission petitioned the town council to reimburse him for $2,500 in legal fees.
Louis Perillo was called in front of the Board of Ethics by a Southington citizen who charged that the PZC member had voted on matters when he had known that he had a conflict of interest. The debate waged on for weeks, but the Board of Ethics ultimately exonerated Perillo.
Along the way, he racked up $2,500 in legal bills—a far cry from Lombardi’s $28,000, but a good amount just the same. Perillo wrote to then-Town Manager John Weichsel asking the town to reimburse him. Weichsel denied him, saying an attorney wasn’t required for the informal investigation.
It raised an interesting dilemna. In Southington, town officials are not paid. They don’t receive stipends like some municipalities, and they are already donating a lot of time. Is it fair that somebody can bring any charge in front of the ethics board, and they have to pay thousands just to defend themselves for a volunteer position? Who would chose to put themselves in that position? Of course, unmerited claims are supposed to be filtered out before it gets to the public level.
That debate in 1988 divided the Town Council. Some officials warned that everyone was vulnerable to uneccesary attacks. One member of the Council disagreed, saying that reimbursement put public officials at an unfair advantage because the person bringing the charges before the board still had to shoulder their own costs.
After a couple weeks of deliberations, the council agreed to pay Perillo $1,500 of his $2,500 claim. The Council then approved a new policy, 8-1, that limited future payments to $1,500. Of course, attorney fees have increased dramatically since 1988 and it’s unclear if the limit has been increased.
We are sure that this will be debated again when Lombardi’s claim is brought before the council. People will argue both sides, but they will probably overlook the one glaring problem in this whole debacle.
When the recent decision was vacated, it wasn’t a declaration of innocence like Perillo’s case. Lombardi’s ethics complaint is essentially a mistrial. It just stripped the whole argument back to the beginning, and everyone walked away confused, angry, and—in Lombardi’s case—with huge bills.
Whether the town pays or doesn’t pay the fees is only part of the issue. The real problem is that the town has no enforceable code in place for now or the future.
Costs will continue to rise as defendants surround themselves with leagues of attorneys, knowing the town will pay. Without attorneys or judges sitting on the board, legal mistakes are bound to happen during the “informal” hearings. Every decision will ultimately be overturned. It’s just a question of how much it will cost town officials and the public.
The only people who win this debate are the attorneys.