The director of the Oak Bluffs council on aging has been placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into the management of a fuel assistance fund connected to the senior center.
Oak Bluffs selectmen voted Tuesday to request a police investigation into the financial activities of director Roger Wey and the council on aging. The vote followed discussion of a memorandum from the town’s special labor counsel, Jack Collins, suggesting the selectmen conduct an investigation “to determine whether laws are being violated and if all monies have been properly accounted for.”
Mr. Wey, who did not attend the selectmen’s meeting, told the Gazette on Wednesday that he welcomed an investigation, but that he had explained the situation to the town last fall. He added that he would have liked to be asked in for questioning by the selectmen. “All they needed to do was to ask me to come and explain it again,” he said.
The controversy concerns a fund that was created to provide help to citizens in need of money to pay for fuel and other emergency needs. Referred to as the Quilt Fund for Fuel Assistance, the fund was originally set up as a town account with proceeds from the sale of quilts made by volunteers at the senior center.
Town accountant Arthur Gallagher told the selectmen he was made aware of an issue involving the fund after a citizen came to town hall asking about a check that appeared to come from the council on aging. The check had been denied at Stop & Shop and was signed by a person who was not an employee of the town, Mr. Gallagher said.
In his account, Mr. Gallagher told the selectmen that Mr. Wey had been brought in for discussion, but conversations with him were “very convoluted,” he said, recalling that Mr. Wey said, “Oh, that shouldn’t have happened.”
Upon subsequent investigation, Mr. Gallagher discovered more evidence of financial mismanagement, he said.
“I found more issues in addition to that check, other instances where other funds were being received by the council on aging and not turned over to the town,” Mr. Gallagher told selectmen.
Mr. Wey told the Gazette that the quilting fund was originally set up as a town account, but on the advice of former town accountant Paul Manzi, its use was discontinued and a new fuel assistance fund was set up under the personal control of Glenna F. Barkan, one of the original quilters. The town account was kept open with a balance of $300, but left dormant, he said.
Speaking to the Gazette on Wednesday Ms. Barkan said that some of the checks may have mentioned the Council on Aging or OBCOA, but that the fund was a personal checking account controlled by her and that neither Mr. Wey nor the council had access to it or signing authority.
“It is not an official group,” said Ms. Barkan. “We weren’t strict about how they make it out,” she said, referring to the checks.
“Roger is totally innocent,” she said.
In a separate email Wednesday to selectman Kathy Burton, Ms. Barkan added:
“When Mr. Wey, the director or Susan Von Steiger, the outreach coordinator, find a person who needs assistance, they tell me and I write the check. To Vineyard Propane, or Amerigas (in years past), etc. Never to Roger, always to a fuel company, or maybe to the SSA for someone who needs to go off-Island to a medical appointment.”
In his memorandum, the town’s special labor counsel noted that state law generally prohibits town employees from receiving and expending money for municipal functions without it going through the town treasury.
At the selectmen’s meeting, board chairman Walter Vail said the matter was of concern. “There are checks being written against it, but there is no activity being monitored by our accountant,” he said. “We don’t know what money is going in, what is going out and who controls it.”
Selectmen discussed the actions available to them. Gregory Coogan wondered about the extent of the infractions and whether the administrative leave was necessary.
But Mr. Vail said putting Mr. Wey on leave was warranted.
“The problem that you have is that if indeed there is something bad going on, and he is still there, he is able to provide cover-up and we are never going to get to the bottom of it,” he said. He added: “I don’t want to have something bad happening to this town.”
Ms. Burton said she supported the investigation, but knew the quilters to have sound intentions.
In the end, Ms. Burton, Mr. Vail and Mr. Coogan voted in favor of the paid administrative leave. Gail Barmakian opposed, calling the move “drastic.” She asked her colleagues to consider the incident within the context of other questionable accounting in town which did not warrant investigation. “When you are talking about Massachusetts General Law, it is very strict, and sometimes people are lazy about this,” she said. She advocated that the selectmen instead work it out with Mr. Wey.
Michael Santoro abstained, citing a lack of information.
Mr. Wey has been director of the council on aging since 2005. A former longtime public official, he served eight terms as an Oak Bluffs selectman.
“I want to make it clear that this is an investigation and the presumption of innocence remains,” Mr. Vail said in closing.
Police chief Erik Blake, who was in attendance at the meeting that included an earlier swearing in of a new officer, said his department would begin the investigation Wednesday morning.
This story was updated from an earlier version with additional information and comment from Roger Wey and Glenna Barkan.