On May 21, 2015, the State Ethics Commission (“Commission”) voted to find reasonable cause to believe that Massachusetts State Police Trooper Seth Peterson violated the state’s conflict of interest law ( G.L. c. 268A), by using his position as a State Trooper to intervene with a tow company to have a family member’s tow charge reduced, and to deprive the Tow Company of work to which it would have been entitled, and by participating in an inspection of the Tow Company, which ultimately resulted in the temporary removal of the company from the regional State Police tow lists.
The Commission chose to resolve the matter by issuing a Public Education Letter (“PEL”) rather than through an adjudicatory hearing because the State Police took disciplinary action against Peterson in this matter by imposing a forfeiture of 15 vacation days, at a cost to Peterson of approximately $5,500.
According to the PEL, Peterson was the Station Tow Officer working out of the State Police-Yarmouth Barracks. In July 2011, Peterson’s cousin was involved in a traffic accident on Route 6, within the jurisdiction of the State Police-Bourne Barracks. The cousin incurred a tow charge of $354. As discussed in the PEL, Peterson then did the following:
Visited the Tow Company while in uniform and driving his State Police vehicle and informed the Tow Company manager that he was investigating a complaint of overcharging, without revealing until asked that the matter involved a family member;
- Submitted a report to his State Police superiors in March 2012 concerning his inspection of four tow companies on the State Police tow list in which he found several violations by the Tow Company;
- Bypassed the Tow Company on a call in May 2012, by contacting another company on the tow list out of rotation, thereby depriving the Tow Company of work to which it was entitled; and
- Participated in an inspection of the Tow Company in June 2012 and found issues or violations with the Tow Company which resulted in the Tow Company being temporarily removed from all regional State Police tow rotation lists.
Section 23(b)(2)(ii) of the conflict of interest law prohibits a state employee from using or attempting to use his official position to secure for himself or anyone else an unwarranted privilege of substantial value not properly available to similarly situated individuals. The Commission concluded that there was reasonable cause to believe that Peterson violated section 23(b)(2)(ii) by using his position as a State Trooper to intervene with the Tow Company on behalf of a family member to have the tow charge reduced, and then to bypass the Tow Company on the tow rotation list.
Section 23(b)(3) prohibits a state employee from acting in a manner that creates the appearance that the state employee can be unduly influenced or would act with undue favor towards anyone in the performance of his official duties. This subsection further provides that the appearance of a conflict of interest can be avoided if the employee discloses publicly all of the relevant circumstances that would otherwise create the appearance of conflict prior to acting. The Commission concluded that there was reasonable cause to believe that Peterson violated section 23(b)(3) by participating in the inspections of the Tow Company without first disclosing that he previously attempted to have a tow charge for a family member reduced. As stated in the PEL, “[b]y participating in the inspections of Tow Company X when you had intervened in a billing dispute with that company on behalf of your family member, you created the appearance that your family could influence you to not act impartially in your official responsibilities toward the tow company. That the tow company was found in violation of several provisions of the tow contract during your inspections could be viewed as retaliatory.”
As explained in the PEL, “[a] potential conflict of interest arises whenever a public employee acts on matters involving family members. The abuse of one’s public position, such as when a public employee uses his official position to secure an unwarranted privilege of substantial value for a family member, is a conflict of interest. Moreover, public employees who use their official positions to retaliate against someone else for their own personal satisfaction also violate the conflict of interest law.”