Probe finds conflict in Brewer land deal

Posted May 06, 2010, at 8:07 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — An independent investigation released Thursday concluded that the actions of the former chairman of the Brewer Housing Authority related to a land sale last year represented a direct and substantial conflict of interest.

The report, prepared by Portland attorneys James Cohen and Alexia Pappas and presented to the Brewer City Council by Cohen, represents nearly six months of interviews and data collection into the now well-publicized transaction.

Last year, Calvin Bubar, a local landlord and property owner, negotiated the sale of his property at 258 Chamberlain St. to the Brewer Housing Authority while he was chairman of its board of commissioners. According to the investigation, Bubar never recused himself from any votes about the sale and never disclosed his conflict of interest. The sale resulted in Bubar doubling his profit from the $120,000 he paid for the property in 2007 to $280,000.

“The conflict was obvious to the Housing Authority and its Board of Commissioners, yet the processes set forth in Maine law for dealing with such a conflict do not appear to have been sufficiently observed by either the BHA or Calvin Bubar, until too late,” the attorneys’ report stated. “Were these errors intentional or accidental? Based on our investigation, we could not say for certain. However, as a consequence of these mistakes, the Brewer Housing Authority may have paid too much to acquire a parcel of land to enable development of a senior housing project that would likely benefit the community.”

Cohen further concluded that enough evidence exists for the City of Brewer to pursue further action against Bubar if it chooses under Maine’s misuse of information laws. The penalty would be a Class E misdemeanor, likely punishable by a small fine. Last December, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development review revealed no federal conflict of interest violations but did indicate that the purchase price was questionable and that state laws likely were violated.

Any decision on whether to pursue legal recourse will rest with the Brewer City Council, whose members all declined to comment Thursday until they had more time to review the investigation and its findings.

Bubar did not attend Thursday’s presentation. His attorney, N. Laurence Willey, declined to comment.

Cohen spent nearly two hours detailing the findings of his investigation, which focused specifically on the timing of Bubar’s initial purchase of the property, his first conversations with the housing authority and his eventual appointment to the board.

Bubar bought the property in 2007 for $120,000 with the intent of developing it. He later reconsidered and approached the Brewer Housing Authority about a possible sale of the property. Bubar joined the board of directors shortly after purchasing the property and became its chair. About a year later, Bubar offered again to sell the Chamberlain Street lot. The housing authority contacted a local agency, Penquis, about a joint development agreement to create a 32-unit elderly housing complex. After multiple meetings and discussions, a purchase and sale agreement was signed on July 8, 2009. Bubar resigned from the board of commissioners the next day.

Brewer officials became concerned about a possible conflict of interest in early October after learning that the housing authority planned to pay Bubar $280,000 for the 4.16-acre parcel that was valued by the city at only $88,000. Councilors held an executive session on Oct. 1 to discuss the matter and later agreed to hire an independent firm to investigate. The cost of the investigation was approximately $52,000.

One of the things Cohen found during the course of the investigation was a host of discrepancies regarding who knew what and when. He also said some supporting materials, such as videotapes of housing authority meetings, were incomplete or inconclusive.

During Thursday’s presentation, Councilor Larry Doughty suggested that the tapes could have been tampered with. He also wondered why the Brewer Housing Authority did not offer information that was discussed in executive session, which would have aided the investigation.

Although the independent investigation is not binding, it did offer some recommendations. The first was to forward the report to any appropriate prosecutorial authority. The second was for the Brewer Housing Authority to take several steps to ensure that any future conflicts of interest are avoided. Finally, it urged the city to require all public officials to disclose any relationships that might pose conflicts and recuse themselves from votes when appropriate.

In some ways, the sequence of events was a function of small town governments where the same people wear many different hats, according to Cohen.

“The simple fact is that, for too long, Mr. Bubar wore two different hats at the same time … In such an obvious conflict, Mr. Bubar’s duty was to take clear steps to avoid wearing both hats at the same time and withdraw from any involvement with the BHA related to his property,” the report stated.

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