For a Public Office Holder, Nothing Can Spell Trouble Like Wanting to Help a Relative

Friday, March 13, 2015

There are many ways to get in trouble when you hold a public office or a place on the public payroll.  Not too surprisingly, that trouble often begins with a relative or friend.

In public life, friends can get you into trouble faster and worse than your enemies can.  The same goes for relatives.  It’s always been that way.
The records of the Massachusetts Ethics Commission are rife with accounts of appointed and elected officials who should have resisted the normal human impulse to help someone they knew or were related to.

As cautionary tales, consider the fairly recent cases of (a) Henry Richenburg, a member of the Salisbury Board of Selectmen, (b) Stephen Hyde, Sr., the former chief of the Southampton Fire Department, and (c) Elizabeth Gorski, a member of the Groveland Board of Selectmen.  The Ethics Commission hit them with fines of $2,500, $7,500 and $2,500, respectively, for violating the state’s conflict of interest law, Chapter 268A of the Massachusetts General Laws. 
Here are some of the details of each case, as excerpted from separate press releases issued by the Ethics Commission on March 3, and on Dec. 17 and Dec. 11, 2014:

Henry Richenburg
“…in March 2013, Richenburg’s son-in-law filed an application for a general license with the BOS (Board of Selectmen) to operate a poultry business to raise and sell poultry and eggs.  The business was located both adjacent to, and on a portion of, Richenburg’s property.  The property adjacent to Richenburg’s property is owned by Richenburg’s daughter and son-in-law…the BOS, on June 10, 2013, unanimously voted to approve the license application.  Richenburg participated as a Selectman in the decisions to table the application and then to approve the application.  Richenburg also signed the license along with the other BOS members…at the time he participated in these matters, Richenburg knew that both he and his daughter, a member of his immediate family, had a financial interest in the proposed poultry business.  His daughter had a financial interest because she was directly involved in the poultry business and owned property on which the poultry business was to operate; Richenburg had a financial interest because he was an abutter to the business and a portion of his property was being used to operate the business.”

Stephen Hyde, Sr.
“…Hyde’s son was an SFD (Southampton Fire Department) firefighter and emergency medical technician in 2011.  As the Chief, Hyde was the only full-time employee of the SFD.  The other employees, including Hyde’s son, were hourly employees who responded to fire and ambulance calls or provided station coverage duty.  Firefighters would fill out a ‘call sheet’ in order to be paid for the hours they worked.  The call sheets were then placed in a locked box to which only Hyde had access, and Hyde would submit them to the Town every two weeks for payment.  The Commission found that in 2011, Hyde used his position as chief to check off or add his son’s name on as many as 47 call sheets for days and times when his son had not responded to ambulance or fire calls, or performed station coverage duties.  The Decision states that Hyde presented false payroll records to the Town for his son to be paid at least $200 for ambulance and fire calls to which his son did not respond, and approximately $6,172 for 336 hours of daytime station coverage that his son did not perform.  Hyde testified that the payments he caused to be made by the Town to his son were for repair and maintenance work that his son performed on SFD vehicles and equipment, primarily at Hyde’s garage at his home.  His son testified to having performed roughly 193 hours of repair and maintenance work, although neither he nor Hyde documented any of the work that Hyde’s son performed for the SFD.  In 2011, based on altered payroll records, Hyde’s son received at least 16 payments of substantial value, which is $50 or more.”

Elizabeth Gorski
“…the Commission found that Gorski committed a single violation of section 23(b)(2)(ii) of the conflict of interest law by, on one occasion, threatening negative employment action against the Chief and Deputy Chief of Police, but that the Commission’s Enforcement Division failed to prove any of its other claims against Gorski…the Commission found that Gorski improperly used her position as a Selectman in an attempt to secure her son’s return to active duty (as a Groveland police officer) when she spoke with Deputy Chief Jeffrey Gillen during a chance meeting in a Georgetown restaurant on January 26, 2012.  During that conversation, Gorski discussed her son’s leave and noted that the Deputy Chief and Chief’s employment contracts were coming up for renewal.  Although Gorski previously had abstained in her position as Selectman from acting on police matters, during this encounter, she threatened to take negative action with regard to their contracts.  The Commission found that Gorski violated section 23(b)(2)(ii) by attempting to use her position as a Selectman to threaten the Deputy Chief and Chief’s contract renewals in connection with her expressed desire to see her son reinstated as a police officer.”

If I were in a position to give advice to every newly elected or newly appointed public office holder, this is what I’d say: regard the impulse to help a friend or relative in need, or a request for a special favor from a friend or relative, as you would a mysterious package dropped with a thud on your doorstep at 2:00 a.m.
For more information on the Ethics Commission, go to:



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