BREWER, Maine — City leaders have hired an attorney to investigate whether any laws — particularly the state’s conflict of interest law — were broken when the Brewer Housing Authority purchased land earlier this month from Calvin Bubar, a former board chairman who resigned in July.
“Following up on the recommendation of the Maine Attorney General’s office, and the unanimous directive of the City Council, the City has retained James Cohen with the law firm Verrill Dana LLP to undertake an investigation into potential conflict of interest relating to a recent land transaction by the Brewer Housing Authority,” City Manager Stephen Bost said in a Wednesday e-mail to the council.
The Brewer City Council sent a letter to Maine Attorney General Janet Mills on Oct. 14 asking her to investigate whether any laws were broken when the housing authority purchased the property at 258 Chamberlain St. from Bubar on Oct. 7.
Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda Pistner responded on Monday by saying that any possible law violation does not rise to the level of crime the agency typically is involved with. Pistner said the agency did not have the resources to do the local investigation, but added the Attorney General’s Office “would be happy” to re-view the results of an independent investigation.
“I polled the City Council after receiving the letter from the AG” about hiring an investigator, Bost said Wednesday. “All were in favor.”
Bubar’s attorney is Joseph Ferris, a City Council member and deputy mayor.
The results of this investigation will be provided to the Attorney General’s Office for review, Bost said in his e-mail to councilors.
“Jim Cohen is the legal council the city retained when we fought to incorporate the water district as a municipal department, so he’s familiar with Brewer,” he said Wednesday.
Cohen is a former mayor of the city of Portland, where Verrill Dana is located. He “concentrates his practice in government and public relations, banking and financial services, and public utility regulation,” according to the firm’s Web site.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development official from Boston is in town reviewing the Brewer Housing Authority’s financial books to see if any federal funds were used to purchase Bubar’s land.
If it’s determined federal funds were part of the $280,000 the authority used to buy Bubar’s property, then “we can talk about the next step,” Kristine Foye, HUD deputy director for Region 1, has said.
Beverly Taylor, a HUD spokeswoman based in Boston, said at noon Wednesday that there is nothing to report so far in the Brewer Housing Authority review, and added she didn’t expect the review to be completed by the end of the day.
Bubar was chairman of the housing authority’s board of commissioners while discussions were held about the local agency buying his land, according to minutes of the board’s meetings. The 4.16-acre parcel is valued by the city for property taxes at $88,000. The purchase price was more than three times the assessed value and more than twice what Bubar paid for it in 2007.
The housing authority, in partnership with the social services agency Penquis of Bangor, plans to build a $6 million, 32-unit elderly housing project on the land. The housing authority would own the land and operate the facility, which would be built by Penquis.
Penquis also has agreed to “buy the land from Brewer Housing Authority” for the full $280,000 purchase price if it fails to develop the land within two years, Gordon Stitham, the housing authority’s executive director, has said. The residential property would need to be rezoned high-residential, which requires approval from both the planning board and City Council, for the project to go forward.
Both Penquis and the Brewer Housing Authority rely on federal HUD money to operate.
The Maine conflict of interest law states: “No employee or commissioner of any authority may, within two years of that service … voluntarily acquire any interest, direct or indirect, in any contract, project or property included or planned to be included in any project of that housing authority over which the employee or commissioner has exercised responsibility, control or decisions during tenure with the authority.”
Any violation of the state’s conflict of interest law is a Class E crime, which is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.