BURRILLVILLE – The department of the Attorney General ruled this week that the Pascoag Fire District did not violate the state’s Open Meetings Act during the January suspension of Tax Collector Laurie McCutcheon.
But McCutcheon’s questions regarding why she was put on paid leave, complaints submitted to the state Ethics Commission, and a flyer alleging that the district has been violating its own bylaws, have put the department in the spotlight.
The roughly 60 member department is one of four independent fire districts in Burrillville, comprised of 27 square miles and approximately 1,700 households. It is governed by a board of five fire commissioners including firefighter Linda Carter, the wife of Deputy Chief Keith Carter. Their children, Nick and Briana Carter, also serve as firefighters and Keith’s brother, Harold Carter, is the district fire chief.
McCutcheon, who has served as the district’s tax collector for around 15 years, was put on paid leave January 9. According to the letter informing her of her change in employment status, the suspension was put in place pending investigation of “certain conduct you have engaged in surrounding the payment of wages to per diem firefighters.”
In a complaint to the state attorney general’s office filed January 25, McCutcheon charged that the district violated the state’s OMA – a law aimed at keeping government transparent – in a meeting between Fire Commissioner Brian Mathieu, Vice Chairman Robert Keable and Chief Carter, where a decision regarding her suspension was made.
“I was discussed at this meeting,” wrote McCutcheon. “This meeting was not posted. A decision was made to give me a letter of suspension with pay while an investigation was conducted.”
The district’s response to the allegation, submitted by legal counsel Jeffrey Kasle, asserted that the decision to put McCutcheon on paid leave was never discussed by the board. Kasle said that a letter informing her of the suspension – with pay – pending an investigation was drafted by legal counsel and signed by Chief Carter.
The ruling, dated July 3, states that according to the information provided, no violation of OMA occurred, as the issue was never addressed by a quorum of board members.
Just days after the ruling, a flyer regarding activity at the Pascoag Fire District began appearing on cars in town.
The flyer, signed “Concerned Pascoag Fire District Taxpayers,” states, “If you pay Pascoag Fire District taxes you should be very concerned.”
The flyer notes that ethics charges filed against a board member and the fire chief are currently being investigated.
NRI NOW obtained a copy of those complaints, submitted by McCutcheon and her husband Gregory McCutcheon against Chief Harold Carter and Commissioner Linda Carter, respectively.
The complaint against the commissioner alleges that she approved payments from the district to herself and family members three times rather than recusing herself from the votes. Attached copies of the meeting minutes and check logs show Linda Carter approving payments to herself, as well as her son, her daughter, her husband and her brother-in-law.
The complaint against the chief, meanwhile, states, among other items, that he promoted his brother to the deputy chief position, and that he directly took part in investigations of his family members.
Both complaints are currently under review by the Ethics Commission.
The flyer also notes that Kevin Carter, former chairman of the Pascoag Fire District Commission and brother to Chief Harold and Deputy Chief Keith, was fined $8,000 after multiple ethics violations in 2010. It states that Kevin Carter’s legal fees were paid with tax money – an action that violates district bylaws.
The decision in that case, which can be found here, noted among other violations that Kevin Carter’s company, Carter Bros. Inc., entered into a heating oil delivery contract with the district without prior public notice or subsequent public disclosure.
The flyer has been widely circulated on social media, and also states that the district recently hired two office personnel without applications or interviews.
Fire Commission Chairman David Carpenter did not immediately return NRI NOW’s call for comment.
But Keith Carter was among those commenting on social media, alleging that McCutcheon’s husband Gregory was put in the district’s payroll for work on generators without board approval.
Reached by phone, Laurie McCutcheon told NRI NOW that her husband did work on the district’s generators for small sums with board approval as the hired maintenance person – in the past. More recently, she said, he has been performing maintenance on the generators for free to save the district money.
“They’re just trying to create some kind of a smoke screen without discussing what is really going on,” McCutcheon said.
McCutcheon noted that a pending lawsuit against the district limits what she can say on the issue, but said that she believes Chief Carter went outside the scope of his duty in suspending her. She notes that the district operates as a non-profit corporation and that according to rules governing how such an entity is run, no officer of a district can be suspended, hired or fired without a vote of the full board.
McCutcheon noted that she is a “second or third” cousin of the Carters.
“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on that’s just outrageous,” she said. “We’re using the state avenues to do what we think is right.”
The Pascoag Fire District will hold its monthly meeting tonight, Monday, July 9, at 7 p.m. at Hose Company #2 at 141 Howard Ave. in Pascoag. The meeting is open to the public and is expected to be well attended.
Editor’s note: An original version of this article stated that Chief Harold Carter’s son, Joseph Carter, serves on the Pascoag Fire District, along with his ex wife, Holli Carter. Neither are current members of the department. We apologize for the error.