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NEWS > 17 February 2006

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 Article sourced from

Bristol Phoenix - Bristol, RI,
17 February 2006
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Seekonk Police promotional exa

SEEKONK - The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Ethics Commission has concluded its review into allegations of possible improprieties related to promotional police exams administered during the term of former Police Chief Vito Scotti, and has decided to take no further action.

The announcement regarding the agency's decision was made at a recent Seekonk Board of Selectmen meeting, based on a Jan. 25, 2006, letter that was sent to the town by the commission. At the board's Feb. 1 meeting, Chairman John Whelan said the letter was sent after he made recent inquiries of his own into the status of the investigation, and discovered the matter was "concluded."

The primary complaint

According to Mr. Whelan, notice of the investigation's end had apparently been sent to former Selectman Steven Howitt, the primary complainant in the case, in a November 30, 2005, letter. But Mr. Howitt chose not to share the commission's decision with the town, though there were individuals there who were closely involved in the matter.

A copy of the two-paragraph letter sent to Mr. Howitt and stamped "CONFIDENTIAL," states that the commission conducted a careful review of the allegations made to the commission on Feb. 4, 2004, and, based on that review, "has decided not to take any further action."

It adds "... we understand you may be dissatisfied with this result ..."

The tersely worded decision seemed anticlimactic, compared to the unrest over the matter that boiled over just one year ago. The complaints lodged against the Seekonk police department, and against Chief Scotti, were a hot topic for some months. With the support of some of his fellow selectmen, Mr. Howitt forwarded a complaint to the commission regarding a number of aspects of the competitive examinations for sergeants and lieutenants administered to Seekonk officers in 2002 and 2003.

Exam issues

Among the issues Mr. Howitt and others brought into question were the firm hired to administer the exams, the timing and content of the tests, the adoption of a scoring system used to rank the candidates, and the fact that one officer's scores were later found to be missing from their personnel file.

Mr. Whelan, who also was on the board at the time, did not support the move to challenge the police department's actions. He took that stand after talking with two town counsels about the matter, he said. After providing the Feb. 1 update to the board and the public on the commission's decision, Mr. Whelan proceeded to issue what he termed a "personal" apology to former Chief Scotti, for the allegations that were brought against him.

Mr. Whelan also indicated the commission's decision served to vindicate the former chief's handling of matters related to the past exams.

Contacted a few days later, Chief Scotti agreed with that conclusion. Returning a call made to his office in the Bristol County Sheriff's department, Chief Scotti stated, "I am confident that the state ethics commission conducted a complete and thorough investigation into the matter involving the Seekonk promotional examinations."

"I am pleased that after concluding that investigation, they have exonerated both the department and myself."

And still ...

But why then does the letter not state that Seekonk police have been cleared of all wrongdoing? Even if the letter does not state this is so, does the conclusion of a case following it's initial review in and of itself suggest no impropriety has occurred?

A spokesperson at the office of the state Ethics Commission refused to discuss the particulars of any case, or the nature of any correspondence sent to or by the agency, since everything handled by the office is confidential.

"If you have a copy of a letter in front of you, that's all you have to go by. The correspondence says what it says, no more, no less," said the source.

More background information is shown on the commission's Web site, however, as to how the agency investigates and concludes matters brought to its attention.

A section entitled Commission Investigation Procedures explains that each complaint received is reviewed by the agency's Enforcement Division. If the complaint falls within the commission's jurisdiction, an initial "screening," actually an informal fact-gathering, is done to determine if the facts warrant a formal investigation.

If and when a determination is made that the matter should be formally investigated, a more intense Preliminary Inquiry follows, often with testimony under oath.

After this inquiry is completed, the commissioners vote on whether "reasonable cause" does or does not exist that the law has been violated. A Decision and Order could then follow, outlining possible violations and fines to be assessed.

But Mr. Howitt's complaint only got as far as the initial screening stage. No reason was given for ending the inquiry after the initial review.

The Web site further explains that sometimes, when a case is concluded confidentially, a separate letter different from the letter sent to the complainant is sent to the subject of an investigation.

"Many enforcement cases end confidentially at the conclusion of the screening with a private educational letter sent, when appropriate, to the subject of the investigation. In these cases, no formal charge of a violation is brought and the matter remains confidential."

Because all matters forwarded to the commission are confidential, the only way to determine if an "educational letter" was forwarded to the subject of an investigation, is to ask the party involved.

Last Monday, Chief Scotti, now Deputy Superintendent of the Bristol County Sheriff's Office, was asked if he had received any letter from the commission at the conclusion of it's review.

"Absolutely not," was his answer.

By Pamela J. Braman


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