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Amherst seminars: sales pitch or benefit?; Questions of liability and political ties arise

A series of financial planning seminars for Amherst town employees has been canceled after town attorneys and a board member raised questions about the propriety of a for-profit financial advising firm soliciting business on town property.

"At this point in time, it just doesn't seem right," said Deputy Town Attorney Patrick Kelly. "It doesn't appear to be proper."

The town's Human Resources Department originally gave the firm, Waddell and Reed, permission to host four free 50-minute "financial wellness" workshops starting this week at various town locations, including Town Hall, the Highway Department and the Amherst Senior Center.

But Council Member Mark Manna, the board's lone Democrat, protested when he learned the lead financial adviser working to arrange the program is a Republican who has previously worked as a campaign manager for a Town Board candidate.

"Who are these people, and why were they given special permission over any other sales people who want to use town property to hold captive-audience meetings with town employees on town work time on a sales pitch?" Manna asked. "The whole thing is disturbing."

The financial information sessions were to be conducted before work or during employee lunch breaks, but three town department secretaries were assigned to accept session registrations from employees.

"This is a politically connected organization, and they are getting special preference," Manna said. "We've never allowed this kind of sales pitch to happen on town time."

Human Resources Director Robert P. McCarthy said that Manna is mistaken and that it was an attempt to give employees a free benefit they might find useful.

"To me, it's totally much ado about nothing," he said.

McCarthy said he and a town union official had been approached by financial adviser Kevin Connolly two or three years ago and offered the opportunity to sit in on some of Waddell and Reed's seminars.

The sessions covered basic financial health information and didn't get into any deep investing advice, he said. Though McCarthy didn't follow up on the program at the time, he ran into Connolly recently because their children attend the same school. Connolly asked again to offer the program to town employees.

"I'm sure, at the end of the day, their hope was you'd get interested in working with them," he said.

Employees who signed up for future financial planning seminars would have received 20 percent discounts on the firm's seminar series, he said.

Council Member Guy Marlette said Connolly approached him several months ago, and though the two met, Marlette said he told Connolly that authorizing such programs for town employees was something handled by the Human Resources Department.

"I just told him it's not my issue," he said.

Council Member Barbara Nuchereno, who happened in on the meeting, recollected the conversation similarly.

"I just thought it was going nowhere after that," she said, adding that she was shocked and disturbed to later see the workshops flier distributed to town employees.

"The whole thing just felt like we were really favoring them and sanctioning them and endorsing them," she said.

McCarthy said he and Marlette chatted about Waddell and Reed's program but that he made the decision to offer the program to employees based on similar practices the Human Resources Department has followed in the past, such as credit unions and banks.

"As HR director, part of my job is to administer benefits for employees, and if an opportunity comes to offer a perk to employees at no obligation to the employees, in general, I'm going to be in favor of it," he said.

He also said he had no idea Connolly had Republican political ties when he arranged for the seminars to take place.

"For what it's worth, you're talking to a Democrat," McCarthy said. "I'm very apolitical. It makes for longer careers."

He said the firm, a national company with an East Amherst office, did a similar but larger program for University at Buffalo employees. Administrators there were impressed enough that they allowed employees to use payroll deduction to cover the cost of the seminars and gave the company free classroom space, he said.

Connolly, who had previously served as a campaign manager for Republican Richard Wojtowicz when he ran for Town Board last year, did not return a call seeking comment.

Kelly, the deputy town attorney, said Waddell and Reed shouldn't be allowed to make financial presentations to town employees without board consent since the company has no other contracts with the town and could expose the town to unintended liability.

"Are we setting ourselves up for lawsuits?" he asked, wondering what would occur if someone got bad financial advice after a seminar.

McCarthy said he canceled the workshops when he saw trouble brewing.

"We weren't looking to start a controversy," he said. "It seemed like a simple matter."

Council Members Nuchereno and Steven Sanders said the town needs a clear policy to address private companies that want to solicit business from town employees.

"It either has to be made clear that everyone can do it, no one can do it, or we have a process on how to do it," Nuchereno said.

Several board members said they are routinely petitioned by private business interests for access to town employees and are declined.

Manna said the town should adhere to a no-solicitation policy that he believes already exists.

"What's next?" he asked. "Do we have to give equal time to people selling Amway or time shares? My sister-in-law sells Avon. Can I send out that same flier?"

Supervisor Barry Weinstein said he believes the human resources director should have the discretion to decide.

"The Town Board is not going to weigh in on which companies should make presentations to town employees," he said. "We want nothing to do with that."

email: stan@buffnews.com

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