On Tuesday night, Oak Bluffs selectmen excused themselves from a standing room only crowd at the library meeting room to meet with suspended Council on Aging (COA) director Roger Wey and attorney Paul Merry in executive session to determine the fate of Mr. Wey, who has been on paid administrative leave for the past three months.
Selectmen had in their possession a recently completed 11-page report from forensic accountant John Sullivan of the firm Melanson, Heath & Company of Andover. It was expected to provide a resolution to the investigation into financial impropriety at the COA that has dragged on since early February.
However, two and a half hours later, a subdued Greg Coogan, chairman of the board of selectmen, announced to a diminished crowd, which had since been moved to town hall, that although the town was close to an agreement with Mr. Wey, the issue remained unresolved and Mr. Wey would remain on paid leave.
“We were unable to hammer out an agreement,” Mr. Coogan said.
Some supporters of Mr. Wey registered their anger with the selectmen.
“Our intentions are nothing but to do the right thing,” Mr. Coogan replied. “Sometimes getting an agreement takes a long time.”
The investigation began on February 11, after the Oak Bluffs selectmen, per the strong advice of town labor counsel John “Jack” Collins, voted to place Mr. Wey on paid administrative leave while Oak Bluffs police investigated questionable accounting practices at the COA — in particular the Quilt Fund — brought to his attention by town accountant Arthur Gallagher.
Mr. Gallagher also raised questions about Mr. Wey’s handling of the proceeds from fundraising road races he organizes in Oak Bluffs which were deposited into the Quilt Fund account in the Edgartown National Bank. The Quilt Fund raises energy assistance money for senior citizens by selling raffle tickets for handmade quilts.
In his report, Mr. Sullivan stated, “In our opinion, the removal of the Quilt Fund from Town records and carried out by group of citizens in producing a quilt for a raffle and for the purpose of raising money for a fuel assistance program may be appropriate. However, representing the account as a Council on Aging activity, depositing checks for use of Senior Center facility and the participation by Town personnel on Town time and in Town facilities is not appropriate. We also believe that participating in the administration of the account places a duty on the Town employees to adhere to state laws and to establish adequate controls and safeguards to assure that the proceeds of the fund raising activities are spent for the purposes from which the money was solicited.”
From October 2, 2007 to February 2, 2014, the Quilt Fund took in $34,861.46 and disbursed $29,698.37 — $26,633.42 in assistance funds and $3,064.95 in expenses for quilt fund activities and road race expenses, according to Mr. Sullivan’s report. As of February 24, 2014, the fund had a balance of $5,163.09.
The lack of documentation in the disbursement of funds was repeatedly red flagged in the report. “There was no written record of the senior citizens who were awarded assistance and there was no documentation of the process to verify need.”
Mr. Wey and longtime fund treasurer Glenna Barkan have both stated in previous interviews that it was Quilt Fund policy to make checks out to specific vendors, not to individuals, and that names of people who received Quilt Fund largesse were kept anonymous so as not to make their difficult circumstances public.
Mr. Sullivan’s report also cites lack of adherence to federal, state, and local laws regarding charitable organizations.
The report concludes, “Notwithstanding the lack of documentation cited above, we did not see evidence that would indicate costs related to fundraising activities were excessive. We also did not see evidence that payments were made out of the Quilting Fund for Fuel Assistance bank accounts for purposes that were not related to fundraising costs or assistance payments or evidence that any of the parties involved benefitted personally.”
Although Mr. Wey believed the conclusion of Mr. Sullivan’s report vindicated him, Mr. Collins, in a six-page memo to the selectmen on May 12, which was distributed to the press on Tuesday night, took a much dimmer view.
Mr. Collins wrote that Mr. Sullivan’s report “confirms the suspicions the Town Accountant had concerning possible inappropriate handling and reporting of funds,” and concludes that “numerous laws appear to have been violated, that even the most basic accounting and reporting was lacking, that the Director used his position to direct or divert monies to private entities, that he directed at least one other COA employee to participate in these activities on town times, that town resources were used to support non-municipal agencies or groups, that public bidding laws were not followed, that even the most rudimentary not-for-profit filing and reporting laws were ignored and that funds belonging to the Town were diverted and expended at the direction of the COA Director in violation of applicable Massachusetts General Laws.”
Mr. Collins said that the investigation was stymied by a lack of records and “the inability or unwillingness of the Director and others to identify the sources and recipients of most of the monies involved.” However, he concluded that “ the independent accountant and I agree that it does not appear that continuing the accounting aspect of the investigation will prove fruitful at this point.”
Mr. Collins offered a wide range of possible recourses for the town, ranging from laying off Mr. Wey to reopening the criminal investigation.
A long night ends
After negotiations broke down, Mr. Wey and Mr. Merry went to town hall to address the roughly 30 people who had stayed for nearly two hours to hear the outcome.
“We tried very hard to come to an agreement that would have spared further expense and difficulty to the town and would have put Mr. Wey back to work,” Mr. Merry said. “We thought we had an agreement, but some last-minute issues were pushed a little too hard. I think you will see just as the police department found, that there was no basis for the charges.”
Speaking with the Times on Wednesday, Mr. Wey said, “We had two investigations and maybe there was sloppy paperwork, but both proved no ill intent with managing the fund and distributing the money. Now the selectmen have to come up with something after spending all this money. I’ll spend what I have to spend to defend my name.”
Initially, Mr. Merry took a more diplomatic tone in a phone call with the Times on Wednesday. “I was impressed with the selectmen,” he said. “They seemed to be very conscientious and interested in Oak Bluffs. At same time, their diligence has yielded two reports, and in neither have any valid suspicions been raised.”
Mr. Merry had more pointed words for Mr. Collins. “There are serious questions about many of the things in his memorandum to the board of selectmen,” Mr. Merry said.
The selectmen will take up the matter again at their regular meeting on Tuesday, May 27.