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Roger Wey

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Selectmen cited long standing internal conflicts, financial irregularities for the council on aging director’s dismissal.

Oak Bluffs selectmen listened to a report from chairman of the personnel board Gretchen Coleman-Thomas. From left to right: Walter Vail, Kathleen Burton, Chairman Gregory Coogan, Michael Santoro and Gail Barmakian. — Photo by Michael Cummo

After four and a half months of wrangling and two investigations of department accounting procedures, Oak Bluffs selectmen Tuesday voted 4 to 1 to lay off embattled Council on Aging (COA) director Roger Wey and reorganize the department.

First hired in December 2004, Mr. Wey, who has been on paid administrative leave since February 11, will end his tenure on June 30.

Roger Wey appeared before selectmen at a meeting on May 20 to discuss a report on his tenure as executive director of the Council on Aging.
Roger Wey appeared before selectmen at a meeting on May 20 to discuss a report on his tenure as executive director of the Council on Aging.

“We have been at a stalemate for a while,” chairman of the selectmen Greg Coogan said. “There’s been no progress between attorneys. I asked Bob  [town administrator Robert Whritenour] to look into the COA and the [COA] in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven and make a recommendation. We have to resolve the situation.”

Mr. Whritenour provided selectmen with a six-page report in which he said, “In examining the current status it rapidly become clear that the existing leadership and structure at the Council on Aging is not capable of making significant improvement in the culture that has developed over time.”

Mr. Whritenour said a “significant reorganization” is required. Union opposition is expected.

Shirley Fauteux, agent for the Oak Bluffs board of health and shop steward for the local council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) said in a phone call with the Times that Mr. Whritenour’s actions were a clear case of “union busting,” noting that in his memo he states the COA director, which is a union position, should be replaced with “non-union, salaried, management positions.”

“The union will actively defend that as a union position,” Ms. Fauteux said.

Numerous violations

The selectmen voted to place Mr. Wey on paid leave on February 11 after town accountant Arthur Gallagher reported irregularities in COA finances, in particular with the Quilt Fund.

Selectman Gail Barmakian, seated next to  selectman Michael Santoro, was the lone dissenting vote.
Selectman Gail Barmakian, seated next to selectman Michael Santoro, was the lone dissenting vote.

Per the strong advice of town labor counsel John “Jack” Collins, selectmen first asked police and later forensic accountant John Sullivan of the firm Melanson, Heath & Company of Andover to investigate COA finances.

In a six-page memo dated May 5, 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.”

Change needed

Chairman of the personnel board Gretchen Coleman-Thomas spoke in favor of long overdue change.
Chairman of the personnel board Gretchen Coleman-Thomas spoke in favor of long overdue change.

Mr. Whritenour’s six-page report, which was prepared in conjunction with the personnel board and sent to the selectmen on June 19, cited long-standing and at times rancorous internal conflict and lack of focus on COA services as the main reasons to lay off Mr. Wey. The report made only cursory mention of COA finances.

“For many years there have existed issues of concern with the management of Oak Bluffs’ program of senior services that have proven very difficult for the Town to overcome,” Mr. Whritenour wrote, citing a series of grievances between Mr. Wey and assistant director Rose Cogliano which required a series of hearings before the board of selectman starting in 2006.

“In 2009 problems erupted again, with charges that the seniors were being turned into “camps,” the Directors camp and the Assistant Director’s camp,” he wrote.

Paraphrasing from his report as he addressed the standing room only crowd Tuesday, Mr. Whritenour said in 2012 conflicts erupted again “even stronger than the past” which required a professional mediator to address issues of bullying. “That was met with resistance and with more grievances. Then 2013 we face town accountant complaints that funds from public sources were funneled through private accounts. Those issues are still outstanding,” he said.

Recommended revamp

Mr. Whritenour recommended a sweeping reorganization of the COA to remedy the long-standing divisiveness, and to improve the services to the community, “The council on aging itself needs to be structured in a way that it has more of a governing role over its services,” Mr. Whritenour said. “If we’re going to refocus, we have to look at new organization.”

Mr. Whritenour recommended giving more power to the board of directors, eliminating the director and assistant director position and replacing them with a COA administrator, a program administrator to operate the day to day business of the department, and an outreach coordinator. “We’ll be able to refocus the department on services, and away from control and power struggles,” he said.

Mr. Whritenour said he hoped to create a more collaborative approach at the COA, citing the library as an example where a strong board creates policies and the employees carry them out.

Mr. Whritenour was sharply critical about the COA outreach, saying the program that serves the largest senior population on the Island reaches about eight people, as compared to the 60 to 70 people that the Edgartown outreach program serves. “It’s not reaching the numbers we’d like to reach. In comparison to other communities it is miniscule,” he said.

Town labor counsel John (Jack) M. Collins advised that it would likely take three to four months to restructure the organization. He recommended that Mr. Whritenour and the COA board oversee the transition.

Selectman Gail Barmakian, the lone dissenting vote with “a very strong nay,” questioned if the COA reorganization required a town meeting vote. Her question went unanswered. She raised numerous questions over the course of the discussion, several times eliciting applause from the vocal contingent supporting Mr. Wey.

“I think we need to be really cautious and look into this more before we give the power to the board in this letter,” she said.

Selectman Kathy Burton, who said she’s been getting complaints about the COA from constituents for years, endorsed Mr. Whritenour’s reorganization plan. “I feel it’s best for the town and for the seniors here to move on. I think these are excellent suggestions,” she said.

Selectman Walter Vail also strongly supported the action. “It makes all the sense in the world,” he said. “It gives us opportunity to think about this for a while. We have to try something new.”

“We proposed the exact same thing in 2010,” personnel board chairman Gretchen Coleman-Thomas said. “The members today and in 2010 wholeheartedly support this.”

Ms. Coleman-Thomas said increased outreach to the community and active polling of the senior population were essential to improving the COA and defining its mission.

Mr. Coogan wrapped up the lengthy discussion, declining public comment. “This could have gone on a long time,” he said. “We’ve all had time to think about it. I could hear from 20 people on one side and 20 from another. I’ve heard from the COA board and from personnel board and I think it’s time for the board itself to move on this.”

Mr. Vail quickly made the motion to adapt Mr. Whritenour’s strategy and Ms. Burton seconded it. Mr. Coogan concluded the discussion despite continued procedural questions raised by Ms. Barmakian. “The motion is to lay off the COA director as of June 30 and let board continue to look at organization of the council on aging so we can resolve that by the fall. That’s as far as we’re going to go,” he said.

Future strategies

In a phone call with The Times on Wednesday morning, Mr. Wey said he was weighing his options with his attorney, Paul Merry. “We have to gather all the information and then we’ll have a strategy,” he said. “We had an investigation and an audit and nothing in either one that found anything that was really wrong. How much have they spent on all this nonsense? The legal fees, the accountant, the police investigation — if all this money went to fuel assistance there’d be a lot of happy people. The big losers are going to be the seniors, being underserved during the busiest time of year.”

In a phone call with the Times on Wednesday morning, Mr. Whritenour said he felt confident that the COA would function well over the summer. “Since February 2014 Rose [Cogliano] has been serving in an acting capacity and Susan [[Von Steiger] has increased her outreach role,” he said. “Things are going quite smoothly. The center is performing very well, we haven’t skipped a beat.”

Mr. Whritenour said that over the summer he, along with the COA board, will refine job descriptions, develop organizational goals, and conduct a professional recruitment process.

Correction:An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that selectmen voted to fire Mr. Wey. Selectmen voted to lay Mr. Wey off and reorganize the COA.

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Selectmen were unable to reach a resolution to the long running investigation into Roger Wey’s stewardship of the council.

Roger Wey (standing) and many of his supporters attended the Tuesday night meeting of the Oak Bluffs selectmen. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

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.”

Not appropriate

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.

Laws ignored

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.

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Police are investigating allegations of questionable accounting practices at the Oak Bluffs senior center. — File photo by Mae Deary

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.

Roger Wey, during his 2012 bid for an eighth term as selectman.
Roger Wey, during his 2012 bid for an eighth term as selectman.

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.

Earlier warnings

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.

Christmas hire

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.