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Former Southampton water official admits to ethics violations for accepting ski trip, golf outing

Town Hall in Southampton, Massachusetts.
Town of Southampton / Facebook
Town Hall in Southampton, Massachusetts.

The former Water Department superintendent in Southampton, Massachusetts, has admitted to violating the state’s conflict of interest law after he accepted valuable gifts, including a free ski trip, from the companies that provide the town with its water meters.

In a disposition agreement the state’s Ethics Commission released Monday, Thomas Gaughan admitted that an unnamed Alabama-based water-meter manufacturer and its New England distributor paid for lodging and meal costs for him and his spouse to go on a three-day ski trip to Okemo, Vermont, in 2020. The vendors, which Southampton has used for its water meters since 2004, also paid for Gaughan's greens fees and meals at a golf outing that same year, according to the records. He paid a $6,000 civil penalty for the violations.

Gaughan served as the town's Water Department superintendent – a position that has purchasing authority for water meters but requires authorization for major water projects from an elected Board of Water Commissioners – from 2015 until his retirement last September. Efforts to reach Gaughan were unsuccessful Tuesday. Southampton’s current water superintendent did not respond to an email requesting comment.

The charges against Gaughan are just the latest in a string of cases that the Ethics Commission has brought against leaders of municipal water districts and officials in departments of public works across the state.

On Monday, the Ethics Commission also announced that three other officials admitted to similar charges in Sudbury, Salem and Danvers. They had accepted ski trips, tickets to Boston Red Sox and Celtics games, dinners, drinks and golf trips from the same water-meter distributor, which the Ethics Commission has declined to name. The officials ended up paying civil fines ranging from $8,000 to $18,000.

In February, the DPW director in Franklin admitted to accepting free ski trips from the same vendors, ultimately paying a $15,000 fine. Then, the following month, an employee in Natick's Water and Sewer Department paid a $9,000 penalty for accepting free ski trips and means from the companies.

The company dolled out some of those perks outside of water-industry conferences, according to the Ethics Commission. The ski trip that Gaughan attended brought together public water-district and DPW employees, the vendors, their clients and other guests.

Ethics Commission Public Information Officer Gerry Tuoti said that the commission hasn’t taken action against the companies and, for that reason, hasn’t released their names. Tuoti declined to say how the cases came to the commission’s attention.

Geoff Foster, the executive director of the good-government watchdog group Common Cause Massachusetts, said in a phone interview Tuesday that he’s pleased to see that the Ethics Commission took action against the public officials who took gifts from the company.

"Our state law clearly prohibits a municipal employee from soliciting or receiving anything over $50 in value because of the employee's official position,” he said. “And municipal employees are even regularly trained on the law."

Foster said that law is meant to ensure public trust in public employees to make sure that they are serving the public interest without any undue influence from outside parties. And he is pleased to see that the Ethics Commission levied fines that appeared to cost more than the financial gain the officials received – a pattern Common Cause hopes continues to deter wrongdoing by others.

“It’s really important that the Ethics Commission impose financial penalties that show that there's more to lose than to gain by breaking the public trust in Massachusetts,” Foster said. “And we hope these cases send a really clear message, whether it be to municipal employees or outside entities looking to influence municipal employees, as we move forward.”

Dusty Christensen is an investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He currently teaches news writing and reporting at UMass Amherst.
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