Conflict of interest alleged in Conn. fire truck bidding

By Robert Weizel
The Connecticut Post

STRATFORD, Conn. — Fire Chief John Cybart isn't the only one under fire by town officials for a potential conflict of interest involving the bidding and selection process for buying a new fire truck for more than a half-million dollars.

Former Town Council Chairman James Feehan, owner of New England Fire Equipment Corp. of North Haven, whose company was chosen to supply the truck by a bidding selection committee, now also finds himself in the hot seat for the second time in less than a decade.

Feehan's company, at the center of controversy seven years ago amid allegations that Feehan tried to coerce then-Fire Chief Ron Nattrass into buying a truck from his firm, also has a "potential conflict of interest" over the latest fire truck acquisition, said Mayor James R. Miron.

While a Superior Court judge threw out the charges of first-degree larceny and attempted coercion against Feehan after a four-day trial in October 2002, Miron said if there were any laws broken this time "those involved should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

Feehan was accused of asking then-Town Councilwoman Patricia Kronenberg in January 2000 to call Nattrass and tell him she would withhold her vote in favor of a new firehouse if the town didn't buy a fire truck from Feehan.

Witnesses, however, recalled Kronenberg saying she would get even with Feehan and two other councilmen who voted against her, resulting in Feehan's aquittal.

"But it does seem strange and at the very least quite coincidental that Mr. Feehan's company is once again involved in something of this nature involving selling a fire truck to the town of Stratford," said Miron, a Democrat and long-time political foe of Feehan, a Republican among those considered as potential opponents to Miron in next November's election.

Feehan blasted Miron for "setting all of this up as a justification to fire Cybart and trying to kill any chances I have as a potential mayoral opponent next year.

"While I was council chairman, Mayor Miron told me on at least two occasions that he would find a way to get rid of Cybart, that he would fire him at any cost," Feehan said. "The mayor said while he appointed him he didn't like the chief and would do anything to get rid of him."

Feehan also challenged Miron to "take a lie detector test, along with me, to prove who is telling the truth.

Miron strongly denied the accusations, calling Feehan's comments "completely ludicrous."

"First of all it isn't true, and what possible motive would I have to say that to one of my most ardent political opponents," Miron said. "To suggest I decided in advance to set up John Cybart and Feehan when it was the chief and his [Feehan's] company named in an investigative report is an incredible accusation."

Miron, however, declined to take a lie detector test.

"If I did that I would have to do it every time anybody challenged me about anything," he said.

Cybart, a 14-year Fire Department veteran who has been fire chief nearly two years, faces termination after town officials accused him of displaying a "gross lack of judgment" appointing a department lieutenant to a fire truck bid selection committee. That fire lieutenant also works for Feehan's company, which the panel recommended as the winning bidder.

The panel proposed the fire truck be obtained from New England Fire Equipment for $507,000, even though the firm was not the low bidder.

A termination hearing regarding Cybart is scheduled to resume Jan. 7 in Town Hall,

Cybart, 54, and others he appointed to the bidding selection committee are accused of trying to change and reduce specifications for the fire truck they estimated would cost $450,000 to ensure New England Fire Equipment Corp. would be awarded the contract, even though it bid $507,000.

Now, town officials say, they have learned the fire truck will actually cost about $600,000 to meet equipment guidelines and, as a result, have scrapped the first round of bidding. A new bidding process is under way.

Cybart is charged by town Chief Administrative Officer Suzanne McCauley and Human Resources Director Edmund Winterbottom with "misconduct and policy violations" that include appointing Lt. Robert Spiegel to the bid review committee while knowing Spiegel had a "direct conflict of interest" as an employee of New England Fire Equipment Corp.

Feehan insisted Spiegel was appointed to the bid selection panel after his company submitted its bid, and that he "strongly advised Spiegel to decline" joining the panel.

"I told him he shouldn't serve on the committee, that he was nuts if he did," Feehan said. "But I also can't imagine what the chief was thinking in appointing Spiegel while knowing he also works for my company. It's really mind-boggling."

Cybart was also accused by town officials in a Dec. 1 memo of allowing Spiegel to play the "dominant role in the selection process" despite knowing he worked for one of the bidders.

"The following conduct on your part displayed a gross lack of judgment, was unacceptable and inappropriate and constitutes a failure and inability to properly perform you job functions as fire chief," the memo states.

It also advises Cybart he violated town polices by appointing Assistant Fire Chief Daniel Ross to develop bid specifications and head the bid review committee knowing he had no prior experience, and failing to recognize he was overwhelmed by the process. The memo to Cybart also states, "In 2000 you had received a written warning directing you to avoid any appearance of impropriety in connection with a bid process, which warning concerned New England Fire Equipment."

The memo advises Cybart he violated administrative policy by not showing up for a week of work at the end of November when he became aware disciplinary action would be taken against him.

Cybart, who receives an annual $97,000 salary, is on sick leave, having submitted a letter seeking a disability pension to the town Dec. 2 based on a claim of "injury on the job." The disability claim was submitted the day after he was advised of his termination hearing, Winterbottom said.

"We will likely have something to say after the disciplinary hearing is completed," said Cybart's New Haven lawyer Robert Richardson, who declined further comment last week.


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