It all started with Paul Garlasco and his driveway.

The attorney, who practices in New Milford, and his wife owned property in Bridgewater where they wanted to build a home. But the parcel was landlocked — that is, had no direct street access — and so they needed a zoning variance to build the house and a driveway to it. The applicaton was denied in 2005 and, since then, Garlasco has had a running feud with William Stuart, the longtime first selectman of the small, upscale town in southern Litchfield County.

Now, it would appear, that grudge has literally turned into a federal case.

On a sunny July day, the FBI swarmed Bridgewater Town Hall and seized two dozen boxes of documents. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Connecticut says it won’t comment on an “ongoing investigation.” Garlasco claimed in a recent interview that he had filed with the FBI several affidavits alleging that Stuart has misappropriated money from a fund set up in 1917 to assist the poor people of Bridgewater, a claim that Stuart vehemently denies.

Garlasco said that Stuart has been the administrator of the Burnham Fund since at least 1983 and the attorney said the affidavits he gave to the FBI claim that Stuart used monies from the fund to “pay people to help him,” Garlasco said.

William Stuart, a Democrat, was elected in 1982, and since then has earned a reputation as a politician who plays hardball. Garlasco claimed the town once dumped boulders, stones, dirt and snow near the entrance of his Bridgewater property. Another time, a cow leg turned up on the doorstep of yet another local attorney who was feuding with Stuart. The first selectman has also been accused of using his clout to sway land use decisions, mostly for the benefit of his fox-hunting club.

To Stuart, such criticism is just the inevitable fallout of being in office so long. But it’s one thing to be the target of rumors, gossip and gripes, he suggests, and quite another for someone to accuse him of a possible federal crime.

“There are no hard facts,” said Bridgewater town attorney Fred Baker. “The FBI is conducting an investigation. Every year the FBI conducts thousands and thousands of investigations. That’s their job — to investigate possible violations of the law. All investigations do not lead to charges.”

Former Connecticut U.S. Attorney Stanley Twardy, now managing partner at Day Pitney, has no connection to the Bridgewater case. But he said if FBI agents storm into a place and seize documents, they likely have some solid evidence of a possible crime. “If there is no proof, a judge would not have ordered [the raid]. The judge has found probable cause,” Twardy said. Like many official investigations, the case will remain sealed until enough evidence is gathered to proceed with criminal charges. “It could take months or years,” Twardy said.

Stuart said an FBI agent presented him with a list of seized documents. The federal warrant called for the seizure of documents including invoices, contracts, Stuart’s tax returns and Burnham Fund records. “They didn’t get my tax returns because they are not in the town hall. A lot of things listed they did not even get,” Stuart said in a recent phone interview.

Stuart also said there were no Burnham Fund records in town hall. He defended his handling of the fund, and denies that he’s broken any laws.

The Burnham will stated that money from the fund “was simply to be used for the poor of Bridgewater,” Stuart said. “The poor of Bridgewater in 1917 is very different from the poor in 2010, 2011, 2012. Since 1983, it’s been used for people who didn’t have oil and to help students get supplies for school. The fund in 1983 was $57,000, and we could only use the interest. It’s now worth $300,000. If I was misappropriating the fund, there wouldn’t be $300,000.”

Stuart maintains his innocence, but has retained a lawyer, Jim Wade, a Robinson & Cole partner who has represented the state Democratic Party and three governors in litigation. Wade did not return calls seeking comment.

“If something goes wrong, I need an attorney to cover myself because the town doesn’t cover criminal charges,” Stuart said. “And I’m not sure what they are looking for.”

$17,000 Settlement

There have been several legal matters involving Garlasco and Bridgewater. The attorney challenged a Zoning Board of Appeals decision involving the landlocked property to Superior Court and then to the state Appellate Court, both of which ruled for the town. In July 2010, Hannah Anderson, the wife of Garlasco, filed a federal lawsuit against the zoning enforcement officer and the Planning and Zoning Commission, claiming uneven enforcement of land use rules.

Later that year, Garlasco himself settled a three-year-old federal civil rights lawsuit he brought against Bridgewater and its first selectman over their conduct during the zoning dispute. The town’s insurance company agreed to pay Garlasco $17,000. First Selectman Stuart has said the town did nothing wrong, but settled to avoid costly litigation.

Accusations have cut both ways. Garlasco has been reprimanded twice by state bar disciplinary officials for ethics violations linked to the ongoing feud. In 2009, he issued a subpoena requesting six years’ worth of financial records to a woman who allegedly received money from the Burnham Fund. The Statewide Grievance Committee found the subpoena to be improper.

Then, late last year Garlasco was ordered to attend a continuing legal education course in legal ethics after it was found that he made “inappropriate, but more often outlandish, slanderous and libelous statements” about Stuart and other town representatives. Specifically, Garlasco compared Stuart to corrupt Dukes of Hazzard character Boss Hogg.

According to state disciplinary records: “The Respondent [Garlasco] is convinced the First Selectman is corrupt. [Garlasco] has an intense personal dislike for the First Selectman based on their interactions over the years. As part of his dispute with the Town, the Respondent discovered the Town had a ‘poor fund’ called the Burnham Fund and that the First Selectman oversaw distributions from the fund with no oversight. The Respondent became convinced that the First Selectman was using the fund for improper purposes including paying witnesses in the Town in connection with his civil litigation.”

None of that has caused Garlasco to back down. In a recent interview, he said that, in addition to affidavits, he has provided the FBI with cancelled checks and bank statements related to the Burnham Fund. He added that the FBI also has been gathering data from other sources, and that the purpose of the July raid was simply to gather the final bits of evidence.

“They were just wiping the crumbs on July 11,” Garlasco said.•