Hiring of Old Lyme commission chairman's son raises ethics questions

Old Lyme — Over the last six years, the Sound View Commission and town leaders have approved more than $3,000 in payments to the commission chairman's son for providing staging and sound work for the town's annual summer concert series, an arrangement that appears to violate conflict-of-interest provisions in the town's code of ethics.

Town finance records show Anthony Pappalardo, under the name of his lighting, sound and DJ services company, ASP Productions LLC, received checks totaling $3,300 in increments of $150 and $175 from 2014 through 2019. Pappalardo is the son of Frank Pappalardo, who chairs the commission that advises the Board of Selectmen on matters associated with the Sound View neighborhood.

Asked about the matter Wednesday, First Selectman Tim Griswold said he believes the situation should be corrected "now that we are aware of the details."

"It seems there is a problem," Griswold said. "I'll talk to Frank (Pappalardo). I'll read the ethics (code), as well. If it's contrary to the ethics policy, it could be a lesson to anyone else. If you're dealing with family members, you have to be extra careful. ... It's not like (Pappalardo's son) is getting $10,000 a season or something, but it might make sense to have evidence showing it is a good deal." 

Frank Pappalardo maintained Wednesday that the commission’s decision to hire his son, which was only “informally discussed” at one of its meetings rather than put to a vote, was “above board” and does not violate the town's ethics code. He said the commission paid his son “far below market rate” for his services, which included setting up “$7,000 or $8,000 worth” of sound and lighting equipment, as well as some stage elements, at each of the commission-organized events.

“Anthony got paid last year $175 per event. And it was, you know, roughly four to five hours (of work) each time, and he would have to hire someone to help him,” Pappalardo said. “… If we were paying above-market rates, then yeah, I think it would be a real problem. But it’s so far under market rate, it just didn’t dawn on me that it would be viewed as a problem.”

Pappalardo said that such services typically run between $250 to $350 per event.

Pappalardo, who has chaired the commission since it was formed a decade ago and who owns property in Sound View, helped spearhead the Sound View Commission’s summer concert series in 2014. The series sought to “draw people to Sound View for family-friendly events and help drive traffic to local businesses,” according to meeting minutes.

Continuing through this past summer, the concerts are typically held on Thursdays every other week from June through August and feature a variety of bands, ranging from swing to disco. Pappalardo’s own “big band,” Red Satin, of which he is the leader, has performed the last four summers and was paid $1,000 for each performance.

Former First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said Wednesday that she signed contracts with Pappalardo and other bands each summer, essentially agreeing to their hiring, but never signed a contract approving the hiring of Pappalardo's son. She said the commission never asked her permission to do so.

After the Board of Finance approved Pappalardo's 2014 request that it allot $4,000 to kickstart the series, the Sound View Commission was responsible for hiring the bands. An events subcommittee, of which Pappalardo was a member, was formed at Pappalardo’s request to oversee those decisions, according to meeting minutes.

Pappalardo said Wednesday that during those initial organizing discussions with the commission, the panel decided to hire his son, who was 19 years old at the time, for a “minimal amount of money to cover his expenses.” Pappalardo did not recuse himself from those discussions.

Pappalardo said the commission wanted to be in control of the sound levels produced at the concert and therefore wanted to oversee the hiring, “as opposed to some band that brings their own sound guy who has the sound on full blast.”

“We did that as a control factor,” he said. “To make sure it was better.”

Specific conversations regarding Pappalardo’s son were never detailed in commission meeting minutes.

The Board of Selectmen, according to Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal, did not grant special permission to the Sound View Commission to hire Pappalardo’s son, and the Ethics Commission was never asked to review the hiring or the spending, according to its chairman, Robert Staab. 

Reemsnyder said she was only aware of one instance when Pappalardo’s son was selected by town officials to be paid for his services as part of the Old Lyme Chamber of Commerce-sponsored “Osprey Festival at Sound View” in 2016. Pappalardo was the planning committee chairman of that event, according to meeting minutes.

Pappalardo said that after the commission held its first concert series in 2014, the group continued to hire his son in subsequent years because of his son's low price and good work ethic. Pappalardo said he was questioned by Reemsnyder once “a couple years ago” about whether the commission had sought additional bids from other companies for such work.

Pappalardo said he then wrote up a job description of the position and sent it to various other sound companies to see if they would be interested in performing the services but received no replies.

“As far as the sound was concerned, Anthony knew what he was doing. Everyone felt comfortable with him. And that was it. The price was right. So we did it,” Pappalardo said, speaking about the Sound View Commission's decision to hire his son. "It was done above board. It was done at meetings. We discussed it. I've mentioned this to Bonnie (Reemsnyder). Obviously, she knew what was going on. She attended the concerts, she knew my son. All the selectmen knew he was doing it. They never questioned it."

Since 2014, the Sound View Commission’s budget has steadily increased, due to higher contracted fees needed for port-a-potties in the area, hovering around $4,000 in fiscal year 2015, but now totaling $14,460 this fiscal year. Nearly $8,000 of that budget can be used for “contracted services,” while $5,635 may be used for “other/miscellaneous” purposes and the rest for postage and printing.

Griswold said that to pay Pappalardo's son, expenditure requests had to be brought to the town's finance director by a member of the commission. Asked who that was, Pappalardo said finance board member David Kelsey, who functions as the Sound View Commission's treasurer and has been on the commission since its inception, was responsible for the commission's financial filings.

Approval of expenditure requests require the signatures of the first selectman, a selectman and the town treasurer as well as the finance director, said Griswold, who was the town's treasurer until he was elected first selectman in November.

Griswold said that the process ensures that expenditures are not exceeding allotted commission budgets. He said that those who signed the approvals to release payments may not have been aware that ASP Productions LLC was Pappalardo's son's company.

"If he is truly the low-cost provider, I would say it's a good deal for the town," Griswold said. "If the son makes money at it, and he is doing it for less, I personally wouldn't say that just because he is a relative, he could never do it."

m.biekert@theday.com

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