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RI Ethics Commission to investigate Hopkins Hill fire chief. What we know

PROVIDENCE – The Rhode Island Ethics Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to launch a full investigation into a multiple-count complaint that Hopkins Hill Fire District Chief Frank M. Brown Jr. failed to recuse himself on decisions that resulted in a direct financial gain for the longtime Coventry chief.

 

The commission also voted unanimously to investigate a companion complaint against Brown’s wife, Denise Brown, who is on the district’s board of directors and also works as its paid tax collector.  

 

The vote follows a six-count complaint filed earlier this month by Douglas Soscia that included a nine-page summary and more than 200 pages of exhibits. The complaints were first detailed by The Hummel Report in The Providence Journal on June 6. 

The commission emerged from a lengthy closed session at its monthly meeting on Tuesday to announce the decision to investigate the Browns.

 

In early June, Brown declined to comment after The Hummel Report emailed him a copy of the complaint, saying: “Until I’m formally served from the Ethics Commission, I have no comment. ... Once served, I will comment.” 

 

He did not return a message on Tuesday. 

 

However, the Hopkins Hill board at its June 15 meeting voted to hire lawyer Russell C. Bengston to defend Brown against the ethics complaint, at a cost of $250 per hour, to be paid for by district taxpayers. 

 

The board also authorized the law firm of Inman & Tourgee to represent Denise Brown, at the same $250-per-hour rate. Both votes were 5-to-0. 

 

Douglas Soscia, who filed the complaint, is a member of Soscia Holdings, which owns multiple properties in Coventry, including Johnson’s Pond, purchased in 2020. 

 

Hopkins Hill, like the three other fire districts in Coventry, is an independent entity, with its own taxing authority – and no relationship to town government. In 2017, the Central Coventry Fire District hired Brown to also oversee its operations, although all of the allegations pertain only to his position as the chief in Hopkins Hill.

 

In his complaint, Soscia said that Frank Brown is the head of the district’s nominating committee and “has a direct financial interest in nominating his wife, Denise Brown, for election” to the highest-paid position on the board of directors.  

 

Denise Brown sought an advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission in 2002, asking if she could serve as the fire district’s tax collector since her husband was the chief. The commission advised that she could not participate in any personnel matters – or those that would affect her husband financially. Soscia attached minutes from multiple meetings showing Denise Brown voting on agenda items that he asserts benefited her husband. 

 

Gramitt said after Tuesday’s meeting that the commission has up to six months to investigate Soscia’s complaint. 

 

The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to HummelReport.org. Reach Jim at Jim@HummelReport.org 

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