Golf Course Hearings Loom

Ethics Commission Clears MVC Members of Conflict

Gazette Senior Writer

In a clean sweep that leaves the 21-member Martha's Vineyard Commission intact for an intensive development review of the Down Island Golf Club project, the state ethics commission has cleared five members of the commission of conflict of interest.

"I've been cleared," said commission member James Athearn yesterday.

Ditto for commission members Richard Toole, Andrew Woodruff and John Best. Commission chairman James Vercruysse was cleared of conflict earlier in the year.

At the regular commission meeting last Thursday night, it was announced that sealed letters had been sent from the ethics commission to the four remaining commission members who had been charged with conflict. Because the complaints were aimed at individual members of the commission, it was up to each individual to decide whether to disclose his ruling from the ethics commission.

Yesterday, all five commissioners said they will disclose their letters; the letters will be kept on file at the commission office and are available for public inspection.

"As far as we're concerned, we think everybody is clean," said MVC executive director Charles W. Clifford yesterday.

"I am glad that there is going to be a full board to sit through these hearings, because I think the more representation we can get the better," said Mr. Vercruysse. "I think it is really important that everyone - including every town - is represented. And I am glad that there is not any conflict," he added.

Meanwhile, last Thursday night the commission agreed to set a date for a continued public hearing on the golf club project.

The hearing was opened early this summer, but was put on hold when attorneys for developer Corey Kupersmith claimed that the five members of the commission had a conflict and must recuse themselves from the public hearing.

Mr. Kupersmith, a developer based in New Canaan, Conn., wants to build a private luxury golf club on some 270 acres in the southern woodlands section of Oak Bluffs.

This is the second time Mr. Kupersmith has come before the commission; his first plan for the golf club project was turned down by the commission last year. That decision is the subject of an appeal in superior court.

Mr. Kupersmith filed a revised plan for the golf club early this year, but just days before a public hearing was set to open on the revised plan, the conflict charges were filed by Mr. Kupersmith's attorneys.

The commission responded by announcing that it would delay the hearing process until the charges could be sorted out by the state ethics commission.

The delay lasted through the summer.

Yesterday, Mr. Clifford said he expects the public hearing will continue early this fall.

"We are in touch with the attorney for the developers, and we are looking at the calendar to find a date that works for them. My best guess right now would be that things will start up again in late September or possibly mid-October," Mr. Clifford said.

"I think we got a fairly quick response out of the ethics commission. The decisions seem well considered and it is pretty clear that the ethics commission thinks that all of these cases are only an appearance of conflict, and that can be corrected by filing a disclosure," said Eric T. Wodlinger, a partner with Choate Hall & Stewart in Boston who represents the commission.

"I don't see any reason why they can't proceed with a hearing on the merits," Mr. Wodlinger added.

Mr. Kupersmith's attorneys had claimed that Mr. Athearn, Mr. Best, Mr. Toole and Mr. Woodruff all had prior connections with the Vineyard Conservation Society, and they further claim that the society hadan interest in buying Mr. Kupersmith's property. The attorneys claim that Mr. Vercruysse's employer had made an offer to buy Mr. Kupersmith's property.

There is dispute about the factual nature of the claims.

The conflict of interest charges were also anchored in the position that the revised golf club plan is not a new plan but simply another version of the same plan that was reviewed - and rejected - by the commission last year.

After the first plan was rejected last year and Mr. Kupersmith sued the commission, there was a brief attempt to mediate the dispute that ended after one session. Following the mediation, attorneys on both sides of the case agreed to a court remand, which essentially cleared the way for a review of a new plan.

Both Mr. Wodlinger and commission attorney Ronald H. Rappaport told the commission last month that the word "remand" is irrelevant and that any revised plan should be treated as a new plan.

Mr. Wodlinger said yesterday that his opinion has not changed.

Attorneys at Nutter, McLennen & Fish in Boston who represent Mr. Kupersmith could not be reached for comment.