May 21, 2018
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Bangor councilor did not violate ethics rules, city board finds

By Alex Acquisto, BDN Staff
Updated:

City Councilor Cary Weston did not violate conflict of interest rules when he failed to disclose the extent of the financial relationship between his business and an organization that receives city money, the city’s ethics board found.

The decision ends the board’s first-ever investigation into a councilor’s alleged misconduct since it was formed in 1978.

After questioning Weston and reviewing video footage of meetings, the five-person board voted unanimously Tuesday that he did not act unethically last summer when he voted in favor of funding the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau, which pays his marketing firm, Sutherland Weston Marketing Communications, for website services.

The board of five deliberated for fewer than 15 minutes before handing down a unanimous advisory opinion to the council.

“He said he didn’t realize money was still owed. There’s no reason to doubt this case at all,” Board of Ethics Chairman Michael Alpert said after the meeting. “There’s absolutely no reason to disbelieve Cary Weston.”

Weston said he was “impressed with the diligence of the board.”

“I am relieved that there was a unanimous, swift decision to rule that there was no violation, and I’m hopeful that the council will see that and vote to close the issue,” he said.

The Board of Ethics can only be enlisted to rule on a possible ethics violation when the city council asks it to. The city council can choose to formally reprimand — including fining or censuring — Weston even without the board weighing in. But council Chairman Ben Sprague said it is unlikely.

[Bangor City Council’s ethics watchdog group hasn’t investigated a violation in 20 years]

“There’s no reason at all to consider any further action on this, other than that we will work together to make sure our ethics ordinance makes sense and can be applied in common sense ways,” he said.

A Bangor Daily News report earlier this month found other cases where Weston did not disclose financial entanglements, but city council members have not said whether they intend to forward those cases to the Board of Ethics.

Weston voted in June to continue providing $60,000 of city money to the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau, without divulging that his firm was receiving monthly payments from the tourism organization for designing its website. Weston’s business partner, Elizabeth Sutherland, is also the chairwoman of the bureau’s board. Weston later disclosed that fact at another council meeting in July, when members voted to double the bureau’s stipend from the city to $120,000. Other councilors at that meeting agreed Weston had a conflict, and he did not participate in the vote.

Weston denied at the July meeting that his firm had an ongoing financial relationship with the bureau. In December, he admitted that was untrue and said he was mistaken.

Once the conflict came to light after Christmas, councilors voted in early January to enlist the board to investigate whether Weston acted unethically.

Weston defended his actions to board members on Tuesday, as he has done throughout the process, insisting that he did not knowingly commit an ethical violation.

“I cannot disclose interests and potential conflicts I do not know to be true,” he said in a written statement he presented to board members.

Weston voluntarily reported the conflict to the rest of the council when he learned of it, he said.

“At no time did I expect that doing the right thing and admitting a mistake would be seen as a potentially unethical move,” he told board members. “I have a record of disclosing relationships and business interests when it is known to be true and rises to the level of needing to be disclosed.”

A City Council member has a conflict of interest if he or she deliberates or votes on a matter related to an organization that would directly involve or sustain his or her business, according to the city’s code of ordinances.

The council plans to hold a workshop in February to discuss when its members should disclose conflicts of interest and to define what a conflict is, Sprague said.

Sprague said he didn’t know if those cases would be sent to the ethics board, but the council shouldn’t shy away from using the board as a resource.

“In a small town, there’s going to be overlap with a lot of activities and causes and organizations with which councilors are involved,” he said. “The silver lining in all of this is we’re going to have a better understanding of what represents a true conflict of interest.”

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