The Hummel Report

Investigative Reports That Get Results

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A Lapse In Judgment

An employee and a supervisor at the Department of Environment Management are in hot water for a DEM event that happened in late September. Our findings have triggered a human resources investigation and a directive from the top for ethics training. And the response from DEM’s director to our investigation may surprise you.

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In late September, more than three dozen employees of the Department of Environmental Management gathered at the Parks and Recreation headquarters in North Kingstown for a staff appreciation cookout.

They are the ones responsible for maintaining Rhode Island’s extensive woodlands, parks, beaches and bike paths. Supervisors saw it as a way to say thank you for their hard work over the summer.

But the Hummel Report has learned that an employee with the Parks and Recreation staff asked a vendor that has done extensive work with DEM to pick up the $1,500 tab for 40 people to dine on hamburgers, steak, baked beans, corn and orzo Florentine salad - an apparent violation of the state’s ethics code.

The vendor - North-Eastern Tree Services. Inc. has been paid more than $1.5 million by DEM for its work over the past five years.

Healey: “She’s aghast that this happened.”

DEM Spokesman Michael Healey said Director Janet Coit acted immediately after The Hummel Report told her about the solicitation by a DEM for a vendor to pick up the cost of the cookout.

Healey: “She thought the No. 1 thing was, alright we need to reimburse the tree company for the money that we never should have asked them to contribute for this event. Because at the very least it looks really bad if we’re doing business with a vendor and now we’re asking this vendor to pay for a luncheon benefitting 40 employees.

But taxpayers will not be reimbursing North-Eastern.

Healey: “She’s split the cost of the reimbursement of the lunch with the head of our parks and recreation department. We weren’t going to compound one mistake with another mistake. It was our lapse in judgment that caused this, so why should the taxpayers have to fund that mistake.”

Meanwhile, the employee and the chief of Parks and Recreation are now on administrative leave pending a human resources investigation.

Coit was unavailable for an on-camera interview, but issued a statement that read, in part:

“As soon as I learned about this transgression, I took action to address it. Although we do not yet have all the information, the facts we know are troubling and we are taking this very seriously. As the Director of DEM, I take responsibility and we will learn from this mistake.”

Coit added that she is mandating Ethics Commission training for parks and recreation staff and DEM senior leadership, something she did when she first became director in 2011.

North-Eastern Tree Service has been awarded the “Tree and shrub trimming/removal” contract by the state each year since 2015, for routine and emergency tree work. Healey said that with staffing reductions, DEM does not have the manpower to keep up with the workload. He noted there has been a 67 percent cut in full-time Parks and Recreation employees over the past 30 years.

DEM is responsible for 8,200 acres of parkland, 1,000 campsites, 400 miles of hiking and bicycle trails and 25 parks and nature preserves. He said trees are the leading hazard and risk to the public.

Healey: “Our number 1 job when anyone visits a property is to ensure their safety. If you’re riding on the East Bay Bike Path, the last thing you want is for a tree to come down on somebody. Or if you’re at the farmer’s market at Goddard Memorial State Park, where we have those famer’s markets, surrounded by beautiful trees but trees that had to come down.

DEM records show that North-Eastern was paid $128,000 in 2015, $827,000 in 2016, $61,000 in 2017, $91,000 in 2018 and $401,000 in 2019. Why the large fluctuations? Healey pointed to 2015.

Healey: “We had a microburst that caused incredible damage to Burlingame campground, all kind of damage, lots of trees and there were even injuries in that.”

But some of the work has been planned: over the past several years, tens of thousands of acres have seen a high volume of weakened or damaged trees. In June, North-Eastern, at the direction of DEM, took down nearly two dozen weakened trees - including this one - at Goddard State Park in Warwick at a cost of about $30,000.

Healey: “The way we’ve had to handle the routine maintenance, tree work, I won’t say routine, but tree work, is not unlike how we just handled the Triple E threat from this past year, which was going into 2019, we had no way of knowing this was going to be a historically bad year for EEE.”

Healey said he expects the internal investigation into the employees’ conduct to take at least two weeks to complete

Healey: “When you screw up, the way to handle it is to identify it and call it what it is, it’s a mistake. There’s an investigation going on, so right now all I know is that it’s a mistake. Call ti what it is. No. 2 is make a repair, so in this case the director and head of parks have paid back the company for that solicited money, the money we shouldn’t have asked for, and No. 3 what are you going to do different? And what we’re going to do different is, we’re going to get ethics training in here, so everybody knows it, is up on it, lives by it.

“You’d like to think that people would have the awareness of the Code of Ethics in Rhode Island that there are certain things you can do and certain things you can’t do. There are certain no-fly zones and this is one of them.”

In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.