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Coventry fire chief settles nepotism ethics complaint. Here's what the commission found.

PROVIDENCE – The longtime chief of the Hopkins Hill Fire District settled an ethics complaint Tuesday by paying a $2,500 fine and acknowledging that he violated the state code of ethics governing nepotism. 

The commission, in a unanimous vote following the recommendation of its investigators, found that Frank M. Brown Jr. was a member of the fire district’s Nominating Committee, while his wife, Denise, was nominated and served for many years as the district’s $17,500-a-year tax collector. 

As part of a settlement with the commission, the chief agreed to resign from the Nominating Committee.  

Commission dismissed other parts of ethics complaint

The nepotism was part of a six-count complaint filed in June by Coventry resident Douglas Soscia, detailed in a Hummel Report investigation, alleging multiple instances where Brown used his position to enrich himself financially. The commission dismissed the other complaints after finding no probable cause in a 24-page report prepared by investigators. It also dismissed another complaint filed by Soscia against Denise Brown. 

Soscia is a member of Soscia Holdings, which owns multiple properties in Coventry, including Johnson’s Pond, purchased in 2020. Brown has been a vocal critic of Soscia’s actions regarding the pond. Just this week, Soscia’s group informed Coventry it would not be renewing its lease that allows everyone with property on the pond recreational use – and that all boats and docks would have to be removed by March 31. 

Soscia’s complaint, with a nine-page summary and more than 200 exhibits, alleged that Brown had benefited financially in his position as chief with a company that painted the fire headquarters and his home; and from his position on the board of a solar company that was awarded a contract from the district. Those were dismissed by the commission. 

Fire chief says complaint was intended to bully, embarrass him

In his first public comment since the complaint was filed, Brown – who declined to speak with The Hummel Report – issued a written statement, which read, in part: “First and foremost, the complaint filed against us by Douglas Soscia was, in my opinion, purely to intimidate and bully us and publicly embarrass us for our outspokenness on his continued efforts surrounding Johnson’s Pond.” 

Brown added in his statement, “In retrospect, I should have recused myself from [Denise Brown’s] nomination. I have accepted the Rhode Island Ethics Commission findings and I have voluntarily entered into an informal resolution and settlement agreement.” 

Soscia, in a statement, noted that the nepotism violations had occurred annually over the past six years and that Brown avoided another potential violation by amending his financial disclosure form. He added that the commission could not pursue the solar panel and painting allegations because the statute of limitations had run out. 

Brown and his attorney met with the commission in closed session Tuesday morning, but both left the meeting before the settlement was announced. While the district has been paying his legal fees, as provided for in the chief’s contract, Brown paid his fine personally. 

“This outcome is a victory for the taxpayers of the Hopkins Hill Fire District,” Soscia wrote. “However, a lingering question remains: Will the taxpayers insist on Frank reimbursing the district for the legal fees incurred?"

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