A state hearing officer has ordered state Rep. Brian Lanoue and his mother to pay $30,600 in fines for health and safety violations at the 51-lot Country Mobile Estates trailer park they have owned and operated for years in their eastern Connecticut hometown of Griswold.
The fines were ordered this week by a state Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) hearing officer, Cat Arsenault, in a 36-page decision that cited a litany of failure to comply with state laws and regulations, based on testimony and evidence introduced at public proceedings that stretched throughout most of 2019.
A major focus of the ruling was a rotted tree that crashed down on a mobile home at the park in late 2018, narrowly missing its napping occupant inside.
“On November 3, 2018, a large tree fell on a mobile home at Lot 136,” Arsenault wrote. The trailer’s occupant, Richard Ozga, “testified that he was on the bed inside the home when the tree fell on the trailer and crushed it, and his neighbors had to kick in the front door to help pull the sheetrock, insulation, dirt and branches off to help him out of the trailer because he was pinned down on the bed. Ozga testified that EMTs took him to Backus Hospital, and he was released after about six hours.
“Evidence in the record demonstrates that [Lanoue and his mother, Suzanne Lanoue] had been made aware for at least a year of [the] large tree … which had a long trunk crack, was hollow inside and which had exhibited signs of rotting. This tree fell … causing property damage and personal injuries.
“[T]his hearing officer finds that since June 2017, there were dead and hazardous trees at the Park that needed to be removed or trimmed because they posed safety risks to the residents, and that [the Lanoues] were aware of the tree situation … but … failed to remove and [trim] the hazardous trees as needed.” Those failures violated state regulations governing the licensing and safe operation of trailer parks, Arsenault wrote.
Lanoue, a freshman Republican lawmaker who won his seat in 2018, is seeking a second term on Election Day, Nov. 3, exactly two years from the day that the tree wrecked the trailer and revved up the DCP’s enforcement efforts against him and his mother. His opponents are Democrat Mark DePonte and independent candidate Dan Reale, in the district that includes Griswold, Lisbon, Plainfield, Sterling and Voluntown.
Lanoue referred Courant questions to his attorney, Gary Cicchiello of Norwich, who said, “We’re going to appeal this decision. We strongly disagree with some of the … findings … , factual and legal.”
‘Hazardous trees, unfit roads’
Among other violations cited by Arsenault were failures in maintenance of roads in the park, drainage of surface water that gathered in stagnant puddles, control of weeds and vines and making sure residents maintained proper sanitation on the rented park lots that their mobile homes are situated on.
“It is a violation of the Rental Agreement and Park rules for any resident to abandon or allow their mobile homes to fall into an unsanitary, unsafe or disrepair condition and becoming a nuisance or to allow their lots to be filled with garbage and other debris. Evidence shows that such violations occurred” on six lots, Arsenault wrote. She added that the Lanoues “provided no evidence showing that they enforced the Rental Agreement and Park rules to protect the health and safety of the Park residents,” which violates the state regulations that DCP enforces.
“This hearing officer finds that Respondents failed keep exterior areas of the Park free from plant growth which was detrimental to the health and safety of the residents, in violation of [state law and regulations],” Arsenault wrote, adding: “Respondents also failed to maintain roads at the Park in a good condition in 2017, 2018 and 2019. … In addition to the hazardous trees and unfit roads, [the Lanoues] also failed to keep the electrical poles and wires and electric meter panels at the Park in a fit and suitable condition. Pictures taken by [DCP investigators] show vines and weeds growing on electrical poles and wires and on the electric meter panels.”
“Evidence also shows that the mailboxes for the lower part of the Park are in a poor and unfit condition.” Arsenault wrote. She said that park resident Anne Bellone “testified that her mailbox was in a ‘dilapidated mailbox stand’ that Respondents had promised to replace for two years but never did. … Although [the Lanoues] braced the mailboxes with a couple of two-by-fours, Bellone testified that the mailboxes were … ‘still falling all apart’ and ‘just barely hanging on.’ … Bellone’s testimony is supported by a picture taken by [a DCP investigator] in May 2019, which depicts a row of approximately 38 mailboxes in a deteriorated wooden structure, leaning backwards and being propped up by a couple of support poles, with vines growing supporting poles and overgrown weeds and plants covering the ground in front of and surrounding the mailboxes area.”
“Based on the foregoing, this hearing officer finds that Respondents violated [state law] in that they failed to keep many portions of Park that are not the responsibility of the residents in a fit and habitable condition,” Arsenault wrote.
Arsenault added up the fines for each violation and the the totals were: $10,200 for Brian Lanoue as an individual; $10,200 for his solely owned Brilan Enterprises LLC, which is the owner of record of the trailer park; and $10,200 for Suzanne Lanoue, who transferred her ownership of the park to her son about seven years ago, but has stayed involved in managing it as the number of occupied homes ultimately shrank to about 40.
The fines included in the $30,600 total ranged from several hundred dollars up to more than $13,000 in each of two matters — the tree that wrecked the trailer in 2018, and the general problems with trees, weed and plant growth.
The Lanoues have the option of petitioning DCP for reconsideration of Arsenault’s decision within 15 days and, if that doesn’t happen, they still can appeal the decision in Superior Court.
However, Arsenault wrote that the fines need to be paid within 30 days of the decision, which was dated Wednesday. That’s barring an appeal being filed and the court issuing a stay.
Lawyer questions impartiality
Cicchiello, the Lanoues’ attorney, said he plans to ask the DCP to reconsider the decision within the specified 15 days.
He said he has questions about Arsenault’s impartiality. Cicchiello recalled that after the final DCP hearing in late December 2019, he had seen Arsenault come out of the elevator in the state office building on Columbus Boulevard in Hartford with the DCP attorney who in effect prosecuted the case. “They just about fell out of the elevator laughing as hard as they can be,” he said. “And they walked off together.”
He called that “an appearance of impropriety,” adding that afterward he filed a written motion seeking to ask questions about whether they were having an improper “ex parte” communication about matters under official consideration — but his request was denied.
Cicchiello said he had previously questioned, just on general terms, the DCP’s procedure of appointing Arsenault, a staff attorney at the agency, to conduct the hearing at which the state was represented by Arsenault’s fellow DCP staff attorney, Paulette Annon. After the elevator episode, he said, he questions this arrangement even more.
Although Brian Lanoue still owns the park through his LLC, it is the subject of a pending foreclosure lawsuit filed earlier this year by Norwich-based Eastern Savings Bank which says it’s owed more than $1 million on a mortgage. Meanwhile, the Lanoues lost management control of the park in January when a court-appointed receiver, G & W Management of Watertown, was brought in to remedy problems.
DCP Commissioner Michelle H. Seagull said in a statement Friday: “Protecting consumers at mobile home parks is an important part of the work we do at the Department of Consumer Protection because the health and safety of residents depends on the park owner performing necessary maintenance. The Department’s staff worked hard in this case to ensure those expectations are being met and to send a message that we take seriously the enforcement of consumer protection laws in this area.”
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant’s investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at [email protected], 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on [email protected]
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