The Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association is investigating whether Freeport Fire Chief Darrel Fournier violated the group’s professional code of ethics while on duty in December by promoting a private fire restoration company that also employed him.

The code of ethics, developed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs and adopted by the Maine group, stipulates that chiefs avoid situations in which their decisions or influence may have an impact on personal financial interests. The code also bars outside employment “that may impair or appear to impair” a chief’s primary responsibility as a fire official.

“We’re following our procedures,” Kenneth Brillant, Brunswick fire chief and president of the Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association, said of the inquiry into Fournier’s activity. “It’s a personnel matter at this point.”

Brillant said Monday that he and four other chiefs will investigate the matter and make a determination. If Fournier is found to have violated the association’s code, he could face private censure, public censure, expulsion from the association, or expulsion with a prohibition against ever rejoining. In the case of a private censure, the public and news media would not be notified of the decision.

Freeport town officials also are reviewing whether Fournier violated any town ordinances or personnel rules, Town Manager Peter Joseph said.

A 42-year veteran of the fire service and a longtime chief, Fournier said he was hired early in the summer to work two days a month for Paul Davis Restoration to market the company, a nationally franchised operation that does cleanup work after fires, to fellow fire chiefs.

He told a Press Herald reporter he would resign from the part-time job during an interview in December, after questions arose about his outside position following a Dec. 20 fire on Varney Road. The owner of the Varney Road property said Paul Davis arrived at the scene as firefighters were still putting out flames and then pressured the owners into hiring them to board up the two-unit home, which was deemed a total loss.

A couple of days later, when the building’s owner met Fournier at the property to discuss the investigation into the fire’s cause, Fournier handed the owner a Paul Davis business card and suggested the company could help with clean-up and remediation work.

Mark Higgins, owner of the local Paul Davis franchise, denied that anyone was pressured, and said his company only looks to help people when they’re at their most vulnerable.

Hiring firefighters and other fire-service members is a “common practice,” he said.

“(Fire departments) will come to trust or not trust companies,” Higgins said. “It’s just a natural allegiance of the business.”

POTENTIAL FOR CONFLICT

Fournier’s outside employment and the possible entanglement of his private job and public duties highlight the potential ethical conflicts facing municipal fire employees throughout the state. At stake are millions of dollars in insurance-backed remediation work.

In 2013, the latest year for which data are available, Maine fire departments responded to 90,000 calls for incidents that caused $45 million in property damage, including about 1,800 structure fires that resulted in $27.1 million in damage.

Restoration companies and private insurance adjusters chase those dollars, rushing to fire scenes so they can be the first to offer their services, said Robert York, owner of Windham-based Octagon Restorations, another company that offers fire cleanups.

“There’s a whole industry out there that pays people to listen to fire scanners 24 hours a day,” York said. “I think it’s sort of a black cloud over our industry. I think it’s pretty tacky to show up to someone’s house like that, when they’re literally in tears, their home is lost, their belongings are lost, their pets are lost. People are so vulnerable at that point.”

York noted that his wife works as a dispatcher for the Westbrook Police Department and said she could be fired if she gave him information. He said most departments bar fire chiefs from making recommendations for outside contractors, but he said firefighters can be valuable employees.

For example, he said, one of his former employees, who now works for Paul Davis, is a former firefighter whose expertise helped him choose the proper respiratory equipment for working in burnt-out homes.

Unlike at least one nearby state, Maine has no comprehensive statewide conflict of interest law that covers town-level officials, leaving municipalities to make their own rules for what constitutes a conflict of interest or an ethical violation.

ETHICS POLICIES VARY

In Freeport, the conflict of interest policy is one sentence.: “No employees of the town shall have any financial interest in or profit from any contract, service, purchase, sale or work performed by the town, unless otherwise provided for by the Town Council.”

There is no mention of family members benefiting from town work, and there are no limits or notification requirements for part-time outside employment. Freeport town employees are allowed to take outside full-time jobs, provided they inform their department head or the town manager, and there is nothing in the policy that gives town officials the right to force an employee to resign from an outside job.

In other towns, however, the policies go deeper.

In neighboring Brunswick, municipal employees who want to work a second job must obtain approval from their department head. The policy also bars employees from taking outside jobs if “it is reasonable to anticipate that such employment may subject the town to public criticism or embarrassment.”

In Yarmouth, the town’s employee handbook gives broad guidelines, as well as specific stipulations.

“Conflicts of interest distort judgment,” the handbook reads. “You should conduct yourself in a manner which avoids even the appearance of conflict between your personal interests and those of the town.”

Yarmouth also bars employees from accepting work “from a supplier or other entity which may adversely affect your performance or judgment on the job.”

SIMILAR ISSUES IN OTHER STATES

Maine is not alone in having a patchwork of local conflict-of-interest rules. New Hampshire has a similar structure, with no state-level law governing municipal employees, according to the New Hampshire Municipal Association. Town governments must come up with their own concrete rules governing what is and is not unethical.

Massachusetts goes much further to tamp down conflicts before they metastasize.

Every public employee – whether temporary, part-time, volunteer or employed by a firm that is hired by a city or town – must indicate that they are aware of and understand their ethical responsibilities annually, by signing off on a guide that explains the law.

Brillant, the Brunswick chief, said that the nature of the fire service, where a work week may last 48 hours straight followed by five days off, is conducive to firefighters finding second jobs. But determining how many firefighters hold such secondary positions in fire-related industries is difficult, and evidence tends to be anecdotal, he said.

“It’s not uncommon for a firefighter on his day off to sell some fire equipment or work for a fire company,” Brillant said. “There’s not hundreds of them. They might work as a paramedic for a private company.”