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Conclusion of a 2-part series

By Mary E. Arata

AYER — The tough part was that they had to sit through a quiz. The good news was everyone “passed.”

Over a dozen town officials and municipal employees, turned out at Ayer Town Hall to collectively take, and pass, a new state required online ethics quiz.

Here’s one question from the new Ethics test. Pick the right answer from the four given. The correct answer will be at the end of this story.

Example – You are an employee of the Mass Highway Department who will be recommending to the head of the department the awarding of a $3 million paving contract for a section of Route 2. Halfway through the bid process, a potential contractor invites you to a Patriots game. The contractor, a season ticket holder who paid $2,000 for two seats at each of the team’s 10 home games, wants to discuss the contract with you.

Can you attend the game?

A) Yes, because you only make recommendations on which contractor should be awarded the contract. Your boss makes the final decision.

B) Yes, season tickets do not have a dollar value printed on them.

C) No, unless the state employee refuses to talk about the contract during the game.

D) No, the contractor is providing the state employee with a free ticket to influence him.

The correct answer is (D) No, the contractor is providing the state employee with a free ticket to influence him. Also, even as a gift and not a bribe, the ticket is valued at more than $50.

How would you do? See for yourself at

On Sept. 29, a series of new measures went into effect under the state Ethics Laws, with more to come.

Starting Dec. 28, all town officials must take and pass an Internet-Ethics Commission quiz. Thereafter, town employees must pass the test every two years. Annually town officials are to certify in writing to the town clerk’s office.

Maximum fines for ethics violations have now jumped to $10,000 for breaching the Conflict of Interest Law. For bribery cases, the penalty cap jumps to $25,000. Violators may be prosecuted criminally as well as in civil court proceedings before the Ethics Commission. Also the commission can force restitution up to $25,000 itself (larger sums would still need to be awarded in civil court). Ayer needs only to look to its southern neighbor to see such a drama play out.

In Harvard, two school officials are under an ongoing Ethics Commission investigation for an alleged quid-pro-quo arrangement in which the school superintendent. allegedly benefited from favorable contract extensions after approving $30,000 in private school reimbursements for a former school committee chairman. In that case, the men are grandfathered into the old laws and face maximum fines of $2,000 each for violation of ethics and $2,000 each for violation of financial enrichment laws.

At the Ayer workshop, two selectmen, Chairman Connie Sullivan and Carolyn McCreary, were in attendance. There were also representatives of the Finance Committee, CPC, the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Board of Health and DPW present.

Attorney Brian Riley of town counsel firm Kopelman and Paige lead the class. He walked the group through the mandatory Web quiz, projected up on a screen. He said to the crowd reassuringly, “It’s not a test you can fail.” Indeed, you can take as long as you like to get through the test, and the software provides explanation for all wrong and right answers. Everyone should pass with a perfect score because the test won’t let the taker advance until the right answer is selected for every question posed.

The basics were presented. Municipal employees were defined as all paid and unpaid, full and part-time employees, elected officials, volunteers and consultants.

Riley laid out a series of “on the job” restrictions, including the taking of bribes (anything of value given to influence an official) versus the receipt of a gift (anything worth $50 in the aggregate given to a town official regardless of intent). For gifts, items have “substantial value” if they are worth $50 or more. Such gifts open the door to further scrutiny. “You can’t avoid violating that if you accept six gifts for $10 each because the Commission will lump them together,” said Riley.

Officials, their family members and business associates may not abuse their position to their benefit. Also non-public information gleaned at work may not be released for personal benefit.

Riley said ethical decisions should ultimately be decided on what a reasonable person would think.

What a town official does off the clock can come into play, too, said Riley. Basically, “if you don’t have a personal stake, no problem,” he said. That goes again to family members and business associates. Second jobs that conflict with the main town function, or outside situations that would cause one to have a divided loyalty to the town position, are frowned upon.

Finally, new rules have been enacted that place a lifelong restriction on a former town official from returning to work for the town as a contractor. There is a one-year ban on managers returning to town service as a contractor and time limitations for family members and business associates working for a town.

Although some 20 Ayer officials attended the ethics workshop that night, a vast majority of town officials and employees did not benefit from the ethics primer.

Personnel Board Chairman Dennis Curran asked what the repercussions would be for town officials who either fail to take the state ethics exam or fail to certify receipt of a copy of the new ethics laws.

It’s an initiative in its infancy states, said Riley, of the Ethics Commission initiative. “We really don’t know yet.”