The state Ethics Commission has fined the president of a Kingston nonprofit for violating the state’s conflict-of-interest law by advocating for funds for her organization while serving on a town committee.
Under an agreement announced on Feb. 28, Pine duBois admitted to violating the law by backing funding for restoration work on Jones River Landing, for which she serves as the unpaid president, while acting as a member of the town’s Community Preservation Committee. The committee ranks and recommends projects for funding through the Community Preservation Act, a property surtax that raises money for land and historic preservation, affordable housing, and recreation.
The Ethics Commission said duBois also admitted to failing to disclose her relationship to Jones River Landing before her appointment to the committee. She agreed to pay a $2,500 fine.
DuBois said Friday she would have done some things differently had she been aware of the “fine print” in the state’s conflict-of-interest law, but said she was unaware of the parts of the law she violated.
She said she agreed to admit guilt and pay the fine because she didn’t have the resources to continue fighting the case and had initially been faced with a higher fine of $5,000.
“The reason you settle is it’s a huge amount to me,” she said.
The case involved funding for the Jones River Landing Environmental Heritage Center, the nonprofit that purchased a historic boat-building yard (Jones River Landing) on Kingston’s Jones River to promote the river’s health and provide a site for local history projects. In 2008, according to the Ethics Commission, the center sought $75,000 in CPA funds to restore two boat sheds.
The commission said duBois broke the law by ranking that project among those seeking funding from the Community Preservation Committee and by voting to send the funding request to Town Meeting. She later erred by voting on a payment schedule that included partial funding for the Landing project, it said.
While conflict of interest is generally understood by the public to involve a financial interest, the section of the law duBois violated prohibits municipal employees from acting for any interest but the town’s in their discharge of duties as town employees. DuBois received no personal benefit from her actions, but violated the Conflict of Interest Law for Municipal Employees by advocating for the Landing’s interest while serving as a town employee. This part of the law is called the “undivided loyalty” section.
Another section of this law states that if you do represent another interest, in order to avoid to the appearance of conflict you must disclose this representation in writing to your appointing authority.
But duBois said she didn’t know she was violating these points of law when she took part in considering funding for the Landing project four years ago. Nobody came to the committee “and told them the rules,” she said.
“I never thought that what I did was in any sense in conflict with the town or a disservice to the people of the town,” duBois said.
She said the issue of disclosure never came up because “everybody knew” she was the president of the Landing. If she had left the room when the projects were chosen, she said, “the result would have been the same.”
However, duBois did sense that her role in advocating for the Landing restoration project was too forward. “I was reluctant about a lot of things,” she said, such as moving the project for a vote.
‘I never thought that what I did was in any sense in conflict with the town or a disservice to the people of the town.’
DuBois also said she did not know that being a volunteer member of a town committee made her a “town employee” in the eyes of the law.
“That was news to all of us,” agreed Rick Stetson, head of the Landing’s board of directors. “That’s very little known.”
Stetson said he’s convinced that duBois did not seek to “gain anything” from her actions on the Community Preservation Committee.
“The board came out and passed a resolution in complete support of Pine,” Stetson said Monday. “We feel she has done no wrong. She’s done so much good for this community in the protection of the Jones River.”
As executive director of the Jones River Watershed Association, an environmental advocacy group, duBois has been a major voice calling for preservation of the river as a natural resource.
The Ethics Commission, however, said the conflict-of-interest law requires all municipalities to send town employees (including unpaid committee members) a summary of the law annually, which they must read and sign. Commission staff will also come to towns to give training in ethics and conflict-of-interest law if invited.
The town of Kingston does send summaries of the law to employees, a practice required by changes in the law in recent years, said Town Clerk Mary Lou Murzyn. Town records indicate that duBois received a copy of the summary of the conflict-of-interest law in December 2009 and returned it the next month. She also attended a group session on ethics conducted by town counsel in December 2009.
Those dates suggest duBois might not have received a summary of the law when she joined the committee in 2008 and acted on the Landing project.Robert Knox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.