After FBI raid, Bill Stuart center of attention
FBI search: Spotlight on Bridgewater First Selectman
Bill Stuart has a bumper sticker that says, "This is my Town."
For nearly 30 years, that's how it has been.
"He runs the town as his personal fiefdom," his neighbor and friend, Michael Chelminski, said of the first selectman. "But he's done a lot of good things for the town. You go to his office and tell him your road needs fixing. The next week, the road crew is out there."
Last Wednesday, a team from the FBI arrived in Mr. Stuart's town, and agents spent part of the afternoon removing boxes of records from Town Hall. Afterward, the FBI's spokesman declined to say what they were investigating.
Mr. Stuart, one of the last of a dying breed in the state -- a farmer/first selectman -- was out haying when the feds arrived Wednesday. Initially, the usually accessible first selectman refused to comment about the action.
"On the advice of my attorney, I'm not going to speak about it," he said.
However, on Thursday, Mr. Stuart was more forthcoming, pointing the finger at George Allingham, a longtime friend with whom he had a falling out a few years ago.
Mr. Allingham said Thursday, that on the advice of his attorney, he also had no comment.
"All I will say is that I'm sad for the community," Mr. Allingham said.
By all accounts, it is a very nice community -- sleek and green and rural. Writers like Van Wyck Brooks and Theodore White lived there. For a time, so did theater and film director Mike Nichols and his wife, newswoman Diane Sawyer. Actress Mia Farrow is still in residence. The Bridgewater Fair is a huge attraction for lovers of ox draws, quilt displays and roast beef sandwiches.
"We love Bridgewater," said Bonne Luck, outside the Bridgewater Village Store, the only commercial establishment in the town center. One of its main attractions, Bridgewater Chocolates, may be the town's leading export.
"It's a beautiful town," resident Ann Bazos said.
In part, it's because of Mr. Stuart's leadership, his supporters say.
In a world that looks upon open space as a vacuum needed to be filled with strip malls or homes, Mr. Stuart, 68, has successfully kept development at bay.
Bridgewater is the smallest town in the area in terms of population. According to the 2010 census, it has 1,727 people and its population is declining. In the 2000 census, it had 1,824 residents.
It's also, by far, the least densely populated town in the region, with 106 people per square mile. Most of the town has either two- or four-acre zoning. The mean value of a single-family home in Bridgewater was $750,000 in 2009, according to the website City-Data.com.
It's the only dry town in the state. Mr. Stuart, like other residents, has a bar set up in his garage.
Born and bred in Bridgewater, Mr. Stuart was elected the town's first selectman in 1982. He has had the job ever since, often running unopposed. Mr. Stuart's generally affable, easygoing manner, in the view of his critics, disguises a man who rules the town with an iron fist. He usually gets his way when it comes to issues large and small.
He and his family own Shallow Brook Farm, which raises, sells and boards horses. His son, Bill Stuart Jr,, also raises beef cattle. Their land has been owned by the Stuart family since 1926.
He is also a leader of the Fairfield County Hounds, a fox-hunting club headquartered in Bridgewater. In 2009, when he defeated Neil Cable, a former supporter-turned-adversary, Mr. Stuart said that it would be his last run for office. Writer Burton Bernstein said Thursday that he heard Mr. Stuart repeat that promise at a recent Democratic Town Committee meeting.
"It's matter of public record," Mr. Bernstein said.
If so, Mr. Stuart will be leaving with a tangle of lawsuits and resignations dragging behind him.
In 2010, the chairman of the town's Board of Finance, securities broker Gregory Bucholz, resigned after being accused of stealing $1.7 million from his clients. Mr. Bucholz pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and is serving four years in prison.
There has been controversy over the Burnham Fund, the town's charitable fund, which Mr. Stuart's critics claim he has mismanaged. New Milford attorney Paul Garlasco and Mr. Stuart have had a running feud involving lawsuits and ethics charges.
Town Treasurer Joseph Caruso recently filed suit against the town after Mr. Stuart led a move to cut his salary from $11,800 to $5,000.
For Mr. Stuart's supporters, this is just so much small-town politics.
"There is nothing dishonest about him," Mr. Bernstein said of Mr. Stuart. "He's a real farmer and he knows what he's doing."
But Mr. Bernstein acknowledged that Mr. Stuart has built up a company of enemies in town.
"He's got a bit of a temper sometimes," Mr. Bernstein said.
Ms. Bazos called the FBI investigation "insane."
"You cannot tell me the FBI doesn't have better things to do with taxpayers' money than this," she said.
Ms. Bazos also said Mr. Stuart's opponents had become consumed with vindictiveness.
"They really need to find something else to do with their time," she said.
It may be a mark of small-town politics that town residents who like Mr. Stuart were willing to talk at length about him and to be identified for this story.
In contrast, many of those who professed to dislike him were terse and unwilling to use their names when talking about him.
"It's great," one resident said about the FBI investigation. "He's been in office for 30 years. That's about 20 years too long."
"I knew it," said one woman, when asked about the FBI probe.
"Maybe it's time for a change," said another.
Patricia Colt, who lives nearby in New Milford, was a little more forthright.
"All I can say is that there are a lot of people who don't like Bill Stuart," she said.
Staff writer Susan Tuz contributed to this story.