Updated 4:30 pm Thursday, February 13, 2014
Oak Bluffs selectmen voted Tuesday to place Oak Bluffs Council on Aging (COA) director Roger Wey on paid administrative leave, pending the outcome of a police investigation into questionable accounting practices in the department he oversees, which provides services for the town’s elderly population.
In a 3-1 vote, selectmen took action against Mr. Wey, a former selectmen, following a pained discussion of a memorandum addressed to them from town labor counsel John “Jack” Collins.
In the memo dated February 7, Mr. Collins said, “The town accountant has concerns that money is being received and expended by the director of the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging in ways that appear to violate applicable Massachusetts General Laws. Reportedly, this involves proceeds of fundraising activities as well as private contributions that may have been deposited in bank accounts other than the town treasury. Similarly, it appears that certain expenditures may have been made from such accounts by the director or at his direction. Preliminary indications are that the director may have in some cases established or at least controls said accounts.”
“With only a few exceptions,” Mr. Collins said, “all moneys received by a city, town or district officer or department must be paid upon their receipt into the municipal treasury. With three inapplicable exceptions, such amounts are not available to an officer or department without specific appropriation, in this case by the town meeting.”
In his memo, Mr. Collins outlined the best course of action. “In my opinion,” he said, “it would be appropriate for you to conduct or make arrangements for having an investigation conducted to determine if laws are being violated and if all monies have been properly accounted for in this case.”
Quilt check bounced
The issue came to light when an unidentified woman went to buy food at a local Stop & Shop with a check from the COA Quilt Fund, and the store declined the check.
The Quilt Fund raises energy assistance money for senior citizens by selling raffle tickets for handmade quilts. The checking account for the fund has been dormant since 2008.
“She came and complained to the town,” said chairman of the selectmen Walter Vail. “We didn’t know anything about it. There are checks being written against it, but there is no activity being monitored by our accountant.”
Mr. Vail noted that the check in question was signed by a person who was not an employee of the town of Oak Bluffs.
“At one time the town had an accounting record for the Quilt Fund, from fiscal ’05 through ’08,” said Oak Bluffs town accountant Arthur Gallagher, who discovered the accounting irregularities and brought them to the attention of selectmen.
“There was a $300 balance in 2008. The account is still there, with $300 still in it. We don’t know why it was shut off or what checks were written against it.”
Mr. Gallagher told the selectmen that as he looked into the matter further, he discovered more instances where funds received by the COA were not turned over to the town.
Nickels and dimes
In his memo, sent prior to Tuesday night’s meeting, Mr. Collins advised selectmen how to proceed step by step prior to a vote to initiate an investigation by police. He recommended “discussion of council on aging director,” to selectmen as an agenda item, noting, “You are not required to conduct this in executive session, but might be able to do so if you were so inclined.”
Exercising his authority as chairman, Mr. Vail called for the discussion in open session, opening up a long debate over the proper course of action. Gail Barmakian strongly opposed putting Mr. Wey on paid leave.
“I don’t have any sense of the scope of this,” she said. “Are we talking nickels and dimes?”
Ms. Barmakian, a lawyer, said, “When you are talking about Mass General Law, it is very strict, and sometimes people are lazy about this.”
Mr. Vail emphatically disagreed. “I think an independent source needs to look into this,” he said. “Who knows what might be uncovered that Roger might be unwilling to tell us?”
Mr. Vail added that an immediate, clean break was needed for a clean investigation. “If there is something bad going on, and he’s still there and he’s able to cover it up, we’ll never get to the bottom of it,” he said. “He gets paid while he’s on leave. It’s clean and the way it should be done. If he’s allowed to stay there, it could be bad for the town.”
Selectman Kathy Burton agreed with Mr. Vail. “I clearly think an investigation is necessary,” she said, adding that the quilters themselves were above reproach. “I sit with the quilters a lot, they’re good people and they make gorgeous quilts. The proceeds come from the raffle tickets and are for fuel assistance. If something’s wrong, we should fix it.”
Oak Bluffs police Chief Erik Blake said he had already spoken to Mr. Collins about the matter. He asked that if selectmen decided not to place Mr. Wey on administrative leave, that his detective be given time to interview him as soon as possible.
“You can move first thing in the morning,” Mr. Vail said.
Selectman Michael Santoro thought the matter could be investigated in a more informal basis.
Selectman Greg Coogan was also ambivalent about the proposed course of action. “This is a tough one,” he said. “What if an investigation is made and we find quilters are putting money into fuel assistance?”
“Then we give Roger back his keys,” said Mr. Vail.
“We’re a small town, and I believe everybody’s intentions are good, but if you had a business, this is how a business would handle it,” Ms. Burton said. “This is immediately what would happen in any business. I’m reluctant to not do what labor council has advised us, even if it feels like an extreme.”
“It feels like an atom bomb,” Ms. Barmakian said.
Expressing reluctance, Mr. Vail, Ms. Burton, and Mr. Coogan voted to put Mr. Wey on paid leave. Mr. Santoro abstained because he thought there was a lack of evidence. Ms. Barmakian expressed strong disagreement with the vote and maintained the matter could be dealt with by the selectmen.
“I want to make it clear that this is an investigation and the presumption of innocence remains,” Mr. Vail said at the conclusion of the proceedings.
In his memo, Mr. Collins provided the wording of a motion under which the board of selectmen could initiate an investigation by police “into whether the director of the Council on Aging has been properly handling and accounting for funds, has received funds that have not been deposited as required by law into the town treasury, and has expended or directed the expenditure of such funds without town meeting appropriation or as otherwise required by applicable laws.”
The motion stipulated that the police chief “shall be asked to assign one or more investigators and to produce a report to this board with their findings and recommendations.”
The motion also stressed, “this is an investigation, and the presumption of innocence remains.”
In a conversation with the Times on Wednesday, Mr. Vail said, “It could be that the funds were being used for good purposes to help people. We want to clarify this, the sooner the better. Roger can either help us or not; it’s up to him.”
Mr. Wey could not be reached for comment.
This is not the first time COA bookkeeping has raised questions. In 2012, a review by a committee charged with looking for more efficient ways to spend taxpayer money fell far behind schedule, because Mr. Wey had not provided information requested for the financial analysis.
In July, the ad-hoc fiscal sub-committee of the Oak Bluffs Community Development Council, drawing on the expertise and volunteer time of its appointed members, had studied every town department and produced highly detailed reports on the town’s police department and emergency response service, with extensive cooperation from department administrators.
But when the committee requested information about the COA financial structure and programs, it received little cooperation and despite multiple requests over a period of six weeks, no response.
At the time, Mr. Wey attributed the delay to the demands of the summer season and promised to provide the information at a later date. Mr. Wey never did, according to town administrator Robert Whritenour.
The Council on Aging budget for the current fiscal year is $217,739. Mr. Wey earns $62,487 in salary and longevity pay as director of the COA.
Mr. Wey was well versed in town government when he was named COA director. Meeting two days before Christmas in 2004, the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen hired Mr. Wey. At the time, he was chairman of the board of selectmen. He was also a county commissioner, and said he intended to continue on both boards while serving as the head of the town department.
The town counsel advised selectmen that Mr. Wey should file a financial disclosure form disclosing his financial interest in the council, that is, his salary, if he remained on the board of selectmen. Counsel advised Mr. Wey to give up his selectmen’s stipend and not to vote on any matters pertaining to the COA.
In 2010, town meeting voters amended town bylaws to prevent a town employee from serving on a board that oversees his or her department. Mr. Wey did not seek reelection in 2009, after seven terms on the board of selectmen.
This article was updated to correct the vote by selectmen to place Mr. Wey on administrative leave. The vote was 3 to 1, with Mr. Vail, Mr. Coogan, and Ms. Burton voting yes, Ms. Barmakian voting no, and Mr. Santoro abstaining.
The original article published online also incorrectly reported that Mr. Wey earns $81,162 as COA director. That budget figure is for all department salaries. Mr. Wey earns $62,487 in salary and longevity pay.