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Ethics complaint charges woman read Norwich mayor's mail

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published July 18. 2012 4:00AM

Norwich - The mayor's secretary has filed an ethics complaint against a frequent critic of city government, alleging that Joanne Philbrick read confidential interoffice mail while she served as a volunteer docent at City Hall and then claimed there was a "leak" and someone showed her the letter.

Bonnie Cuprak, secretary to Mayor Peter Nystrom, filed the complaint citing a March 28 incident. Cuprak alleged that Philbrick had engaged in a "slander" campaign against her and the city manager's secretary and asked that Philbrick be removed from her appointed positions on the Personnel and Pension Board and Harbor Management Commission.

"Mrs. Philbrick attended the budget hearings and City Council meetings and demanded accountability from all city employees," Cuprak wrote. "I am asking for accountability from her."

The Ethics Commission last week voted that the complaint has probable cause and scheduled a public hearing for 6 p.m. July 31 at City Hall. The full complaint, now public, was placed on file in the city clerk's office Tuesday.

Philbrick said Monday night following the City Council meeting that she never received the letter that Ethics Commission Chairman Robert Davidson said was sent June 12. A copy of the letter is in the file.

Philbrick said she had a meeting with City Manager Alan Bergren in May - when she was removed from the docent program - "and I thought that was the end of it." She declined to comment further until she reviews the full complaint she received by registered mail Tuesday.

In her complaint, Cuprak alleged that on March 28, Philbrick was in the docent's booth on the first floor of City Hall and opened an interoffice envelope addressed to the mayor that had been placed in the mayor's mailbox behind her seat. A videotape of the hallway, also in the complaint file, showed Philbrick untying the string tie on the envelope, removing the letter and reading it.

The video also showed Philbrick apparently reading other mail in the mayor's box and checking the contents of a box above the mayor's box.

The complaint file includes a June 8 letter from Philbrick to Bergren in which she admitted opening an unsealed interoffice envelope, which she believed to be the upcoming meeting agenda. She wrote that she realized what it was, put it back, but then "not believing what I had read, I looked at it again."

In the letter, she called it "poor judgment," but said reading interoffice mail was "accepted practice."

Cuprak said she asked to check the video a week after the incident, because Philbrick on April 2 went to Bergren's office to report there was a "leak" in his office and someone had shown her the confidential document. That prompted Bergren to question the mayor and Robert Mills, executive director of the Norwich Community Development Corp., both of whom said they had not seen the letter.

Nystrom then asked Cuprak about the letter, the complaint said, and Cuprak called Bergren's secretary, Jill Brennan, to discuss how Philbrick could have seen the letter.

After viewing the videotape, the two informed Bergren. He and city Human Resources Director Brigid Marks met with Philbrick on May 16 and asked her to resign as a docent.

"As a member of a commission, committee or board, you sign a statement that you acknowledge that you have read and understand Norwich's Code of Ethics and you promise to abide by them," Cuprak wrote in the complaint. "What she has done to Mrs. Brennan and me is a violation in itself, but what she did to the Mayor, Council and City Manager is a violation of the Code of Ethics and is amoral."

Brennan, who coordinates the docents' program, declined to comment on the complaint but said docents are told not to handle mail. Brennan said a reminder letter will be sent to docents.

c.bessette@theday.com

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