Robert Bruneau, a city councilman and fire commissioner in West Haven, used his elected position as a leader of the West Shore Fire District to authorize contracts and payments for a company owned by his wife and son, documents show.
Financial records obtained by the Connecticut Mirror show that Bruneau personally signed off on two business deals and dozens of invoices that his son submitted to the fire district, which provides fire protection to a quarter of West Haven’s roughly 55,000 residents.
The documents reveal that Bruneau — along with his two fellow fire commissioners — approved more than $81,000 in payments to Bruneau’s Garage, which he and his family have owned and operated for more than a decade.
That money was reportedly paid to the garage in return for the company repairing and maintaining the fire district’s plow truck, its rescue boat, its blue and white fire engines and the backup generators at its two fire houses.
The invoices show Bruneau’s son billed the fire district a flat fee of $1,500 per month to cover labor costs and tens of thousands of dollars more to supply belts, batteries, hydraulic hoses, brake pads, air filters, oil filters, water pumps and door latches for the fire trucks.
The records highlight how Bruneau — who was also recently singled out in a state audit that examined questionable spending by the West Haven city government — signed off on more than half of the 46 invoices that were submitted to the fire district over the past two years. That placed him in a position where he was verifying the parts and services that his family’s business was billing the fire district for.
As the chairman of the board of fire commissioners, Bruneau has significant influence over West Shore’s $11 million annual budget, and he helps to decide what contractors do business with the fire district, which operates independently of the city government in West Haven.
Stephen Scafariello, the chief of the West Shore Fire District, said Bruneau’s Garage was chosen in July 2020 to maintain the department’s fire engines and other equipment following a public bidding process. He said the company was awarded the contract because no other business responded to an advertisement that was placed in the West Haven Voice, a hyper-local newspaper that is published every other week.
Still, ethics experts said Bruneau’s involvement in the contracts and the payments to his family’s company represents a direct conflict of interest, no matter how the procurement process worked or how many companies submitted bids.
“If you are signing invoices for matters involving your company or your immediate family’s company, that’s a clear conflict,” said Peter Lewandowski, who serves as the executive director of Connecticut’s Office of State Ethics.
Lewandowski and the other staff at the state ethics office do not play any role in enforcing ethics laws within municipalities or any other local governments in Connecticut. But he said Bruneau’s actions would almost certainly run afoul of any ethics policies that are in place for the fire district.
State, local and federal codes of ethics, Lewandowski said, all prohibit individuals from using their government offices to take official actions that benefit themselves or their family members. So, too, do many corporate codes of conduct.
“That’s really ethics 101,” Lewandowski said.
Scafariello, the fire chief, confirmed via email that the West Shore Fire District has an ethics code in place, but he and an attorney for the fire district did not immediately provide that policy to the CT Mirror.
‘Business as normal’
Bruneau, who was first elected as a fire commissioner in 2017 and has served as a West Haven city councilman since 2020, said he never saw that ethics code prior to the CT Mirror contacting the fire district this month, and he said he didn’t know it was inappropriate for him to sign off on checks to his family’s business.
“I didn’t see anything wrong with it at the time, and now that it has come to our attention, about an ethics situation, we would certainly look to do things a little bit differently moving forward,” he said.
Bruneau said he and his family have worked on the fire engines for the West Shore Fire District for years — long before he was commissioner, back to when he was serving as a superintendent with the department.
His family’s companies, he added, have also done work for West Haven’s two other fire districts and the city’s police department.
“It’s just something we have done right along,” he said, “and my family has done it for decades, to be totally honest with you. So when this came about and nobody bid on it, I really just didn’t recognize that it would be a problem. For us, it was just business as normal.”
Bruneau said none of the actions he took were meant to be “underhanded,” and he said he is “devastated” and “heartbroken” that anyone would question his motives or his family’s integrity.
“There was nothing — no intent here — to get worked steered toward any family member whatsoever,” he said. “I do a lot for the police department. I do a lot for the fire department. It was never about money. That’s the furthest thing to worry about for us because we do more for nothing than we bill them for.”
“It was just an oversight. There was nothing undermined by it,” he added. “The only thing I’ve ever done is worry about the West Shore Fire Department and keeping the residents of the West Shore safe.”
Other elected leaders who represent West Haven residents said Bruneau’s decision to sign off on payments to his family’s business cast the fire district in a bad light and could further damage the public’s trust, which has already been tested in West Haven as the result of an ongoing federal criminal investigation.
“While I understand that the contract went through the proper bid process, as an elected official, you should not be involved in any discussions or voting on contracts that are beneficial to you or your family,” state Rep. Dorinda Borer, D-West Haven, said. “Commissioners need to recuse themselves from these actions in order to eliminate any question regarding the appropriateness of the process.”
State Rep. Charles Ferraro, R-West Haven, voiced a similar opinion. And he argued that Bruneau needed to decide what is more important to him: his family’s businesses or his elected offices.
“If you are going to be in that position, you need to know when to recuse yourself,” said Ferraro, who represents most of the people who pay property taxes to the West Shore Fire District. “I don’t think the public likes hearing that folks who are in positions to make contract decisions are awarding those contracts to family members. I don’t think people want to hear that.”
“You know, my opinion is you gotta make your mind up to either be a businessman or a politician,” Ferraro added. “It’s either one or the other, but you can’t be both.”
‘Accusations and scorn’
This isn’t the first time that a business owned by Bruneau and his family has captured the public’s attention in West Haven.
Bruneau, a two-term city councilman, also found himself in the spotlight in recent months after public records revealed that city officials in West Haven used federal pandemic relief funding to pay Chip’s Wrecker Service — another one of his family’s companies — more than $19,000.
That money, according to the city’s records, was meant to compensate the company for delivering food during the pandemic, for renting equipment to the city and for cleaning up after COVID-related events.
But earlier this year, a forensic audit commissioned by the state Office of Policy and Management determined that the money Bruneau’s company received was an ineligible use of the federal pandemic relief funds.
The auditors argued that the invoices and other financial documents used to back up those expenditures didn’t provide adequate detail about what type of work Bruneau’s company performed in exchange for the money.
Even more, the audit suggested the state should take a closer look at other business dealings that Bruneau had with the West Haven government, which he has helped to lead over the past two years.
The auditors made that recommendation after the city’s financial records revealed that three companies controlled by Bruneau had been paid at least $170,000 out of the city’s bank accounts in the past. Those payments, the auditors explained, should be reviewed in order to determine if they were a “valid” use of taxpayer money.
In response to the audit, Bruneau hired an attorney to defend his businesses and his reputation, and during a heated city council meeting in April, he had a letter from his attorney read aloud to West Haven voters.
In the letter — which was addressed to the auditing firm hired by the state — the attorney said all of the business transactions between the city and Bruneau’s companies were above board. And he argued that Bruneau’s business history was “unimpeachable,” and his character “unblemished.”
“While you have not accused Mr. Bruneau of any criminal or ethical wrongdoing, the innuendo is dangerous and unfair,” the letter read. “It has led to my client having received accusations and scorn from articles in the newspaper and on social media.”
Nothing has been done since that time to further explore Bruneau’s business relationships with the city government in West Haven, though OPM and the state’s Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB) are in the process of ramping up their oversight of the city’s finances.
A spokesman for the state agency said any decisions regarding further investigations into the city’s spending and finances would need to be approved by the full MARB board.
“All matters that bear on the governance and fiscal management of the city will be examined in due course and will be governed by applicable law,” said Chris Collibee, OPM’s spokesperson.
Ferraro, the Republican lawmaker from West Haven, said he believes further inquiries are warranted, considering the public distrust that continues to plague the city.
“The light of day needs to be shined on everything in the city of West Haven,” Ferraro said. “I think everything should be on the table.”