Finance Chair steps down after fumbling Lowthert investigation — recusal for investigation only

Update 3:30 p.m.: Lynne Vanderslice advised The Bulletin Mr. Serrenbetz has only recused himself from his position as it relates to the investigation of special education settlement agreements. He will remain chairman for all other matters.

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At the May 20 Board of Finance meeting, Chairman Warren Serenbetz recused himself from his position as it relates to the investigation of special education settlement agreements, after what he said was an overstep of his authority as chair. Vice Chairman Lynne Vanderslice will now serve as chair for this investigation.

According to his statements at the meeting, Mr. Serenbetz stepped down after improperly authorizing the initiation of an investigation into Board of Education settlement agreements without Board of Finance approval. As part of that investigation Mr. Serenbetz also authorized a request for privileged information between the Lowthert family and their attorney.

Town Counsel Ken Bernhard was also removed from his position as legal adviser to the Board of Finance and the requests for information were rescinded. Mr. Bernhard remains as town counsel.

Wilton parent Marissa Lowthert alleges the Board of Education settlement agreements were offered to her improperly.

“We received an email from Marissa Lowthert yesterday advising the board that she had received a request of release from town counsel asking her to provide information to Attorney Howard Klebanoff to aid the investigation of the [more than] $340,000 offer from the Board of Education,” Mr. Serenbetz said to the board.

“In that email, she correctly identifies that there is no public record of the Board of Finance having approved such an investigation and questions whether the Board of Finance is conducting a secret investigation.”

For the record, Mr. Serenbetz said, “the Board of Finance is not conducting any investigation.”

“The only elected official who approved that release was me, without the approval of the board itself,” said Mr. Serenbetz.

In that release, acquired by The Bulletin on Tuesday, Mr. Bernhard and Mr. Klebanoff — referred to as special counsel to the Board of Finance — ask both Ms. Lowthert and her husband Christopher to authorize the release of:

“Any and all information, including student records, other documents, emails, or other communications, related to settlement discussions concerning Student [name redacted] and Student [name redacted]. This release includes the disclosure of all communications, written or otherwise, including oral instructions, between and/or Ms. Lowthert and Attorney Feinstein regarding such settlement discussions.”

A letter from Mr. Bernhard included with the request said it was being made because the Lowtherts had previously “stated publicly that they will release all claims of confidentiality including their right to attorney-client privilege...”

However, Ms. Lowthert rejects Mr. Bernhard’s claim she and her husband had offered to suspend that right.

“We never said we would release attorney-client privilege. This is yet another example of one of Mr. Bernhard’s misrepresentations,” she said by phone Wednesday.

In addition to discontinue using Mr. Bernhard as its legal adviser the finance board also rescinded the authorization to hire Mr. Klebanoff.

“I don’t like the terms of the fact that this is going to be an investigation by Ken,” said Ms. Vanderslice, “because we don’t have the independence and we don’t have the direct access, so I’m not happy with that.”

At the meeting, Mr. Serenbetz pointed out that the board has publicly discussed hiring an outside attorney who specializes in special education in order to determine if the offer made to Ms. Lowthert was something usual or an outlier — a data point that diverges greatly from an overall data pattern.

“My intent in working with the town counsel to contact attorney Klebanoff, which was one of the options we discussed in public, was to get what I felt was one of the legs of an important process started,” explained Mr. Serenbetz. Mr. Klebanoff is a special education attorney with offices in West Hartford.

“However, the minute I allowed the release of the documents to go out, indicating that the Board of Finance had approved them, I overstepped my authority as Board of Finance chair and exhibited poor judgment.”

Mr. Serenbetz recused as chair, turning the position over to the board’s vice chair, Ms. Vanderslice. Mr. Serenbetz will remain the chairman of the board for all other matters.

The board agreed to investigate the issue surrounding the offers made to the Lowtherts and then decide whether to proceed with a full audit of special education funds. The board will also engage an independent attorney as its legal adviser and will hire an independent special education investigator.

Board’s response

“I applaud Warren for making the statement that he made and I think he’s done the right thing,” said Ms. Vanderslice.

“I want to say that I would not be the vice chairman of this board if I didn’t trust the chairman. It’s uncharacteristic of Warren to do something like this; it’s never happened before.”

Ms. Vanderslice said while she thinks Mr. Serenbetz’s actions were unusual, she does  think it’s something that needs to be recognized by the board.

“I don’t think Warren violated any ethics, but I do look at what the remedies are for the act committed, and one of them is required recusal, which I thought maybe was excessive in the situation, but he volunteered to do it,” said Ms. Vanderslice.

“That’s just my personal opinion — I’m not defending it, but I just don’t think it’s characteristic of Warren. I think we all have a high level of respect and trust with him.”

Finance board member Jim Meinhold said he believes Mr. Serenbetz’s actions were done with good intent.

“I have no doubt that what you did you thought was in the best interest of the town, the individuals concerned — everyone,” Mr. Meinhold said  to Mr. Serenbetz.

Board member Al Alper said he does not believe Mr. Serenbetz needed to recuse himself.

“Perhaps no other chair in this town do I trust more than Warren. I think he does an extraordinarily good job of protecting both the integrity of the board and its members, and everybody should be forgiven for a momentary lapse of judgment,” said Mr. Alper.

“I actually don’t think he needs to recuse himself. The fact that he did just proves again that he is very much the man and then some that I believe him to be.”

Mr. Alper said he believes Mr. Serenbetz’s actions should be forgiven, “given the good work and history of the good work” he has done.

“It’s an unusual event and I think it [Mr. Serenbetz’s recusal] is inappropriate,” said Mr. Alper.

Mr. Serenbetz said he thinks his recusal is appropriate, and Mr. Meinhold said he “unfortunately” thinks it is as well.