FBI investigates longtime selectman

Bridgewater - The fallout over an FBI raid in a rural town that's been led by the same fox-hunting first selectman for nearly 30 years is revealing deeply rooted bitterness beneath the well-landscaped surface.

Bridgewater First Selectman William Stuart accuses enemies of spreading falsehoods to investigators out of personal grudges.

Critics accuse him of running the western Connecticut town like an autocrat and using his control of vast parcels of land, including fields used by his fox-hunting club, for his personal benefit. Some who crossed him say they have faced intimidation tactics such as a severed cow leg left outside a doorway.

Stuart, 68, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he assumes he is a target of an investigation and denied any wrongdoing. He said the small town, in the green hills of Litchfield County, is in the best financial shape of any in Connecticut and his enemies are pursuing vendettas.

Bridgewater, an hour's drive from New York City, has a median household income of close to $100,000. The last dry town in Connecticut, it counts actress Mia Farrow among its 1,800 residents and has been home to other luminaries including director Mike Nichols and his wife, Diane Sawyer.

One of the town's most bitter feuds has centered on a fund created in the 1920s with money from a retired sea captain to help the needy. The Burnham Fund, which today is worth about $300,000, was controlled until recently by the first selectman, who was accused by critics of channeling disbursements to friends and allies. The fund's handling is being investigated by the state's attorney general.

New Milford lawyer Paul Garlasco, who won the Freedom of Information case that revealed the fund's recipients in 2009, had been at odds with Stuart over a piece of mountain ridge-top property Garlasco bought in Bridgewater. Garlasco alleges that Stuart asked to buy the property from him at a reduced price and threatened otherwise to make it impossible for him to build a house on the land, which lies near Stuart's home and the fox-hunting club.

"Nothing happens in town without his say so," said Garlasco, who said he has provided information to the FBI.

Garlasco said boulders were placed at the entrance to his property at the height of the dispute and he is still fighting for a permit he needs to begin construction.

The federal warrant authorizing the July 11 raid on Town Hall called for the seizure of documents including invoices, contracts, Stuart's tax returns and Burnham Fund records. The FBI and the office of the U.S. attorney for Connecticut have declined to comment.

Stuart, a Democrat elected as first selectman in 1982, is not unaccustomed to misconduct allegations. Critics for years have taken court actions without seriously damaging Stuart, who has repeatedly won re-election despite controversies over his governing style and his involvement in town land transactions. A selectman, Loy Wilkinson, wrote a letter in 2005 asking federal prosecutors in Hartford to investigate the use of Bridgewater Land Trust assets by Stuart's farm and fox-hunting club.

In the AP interview, Stuart said his work on land preservation has been for the benefit of future generations, not the hunting club.

"Preserving the land is for the people of this town, people who are going to live their lives here, our kids and our grandchildren," Stuart said.

Bridgewater resident Pamela Hochstetter, 62, said Stuart deserves credit for keeping development at bay. She said he has been known for his "bravado" but it is upsetting to think the FBI may suspect criminal wrongdoing.

"I know he has strong-armed people and occasionally intimidated them, but I can't imagine him deliberately committing a crime," Hochstetter said outside the Bridgewater Village Store.

Some worry what will come of the FBI raid.

Attorney Randall Carreira, who clashed with Stuart a decade ago over his use of land trust assets, once found a cow leg outside his office. At the time, he alerted state police, but he now laughs it off as "Bridgewater's version of 'The Godfather."' He said the appearance of the FBI could lead to the disruption of many lives in town.

"I don't think people understand the potential ramifications of this," he said. "It could just go away, or five years later, something could happen."

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