An investigation into possible financial improprieties at the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging took another twist this week with selectmen voting to hire outside experts to look into director Roger Wey’s handling of funds.
The 4-0 vote with one abstention at a special open meeting Monday followed the release of a police report that did not find probable cause to bring criminal charges against Mr. Wey, who is in his fifth week of paid administrative leave.
The meeting drew about 50 people, mostly seniors, who criticized the selectmen’s actions in connection with the case.
The controversy centers on a fund that was created to help citizens in need pay for fuel and other emergencies. 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 senior center volunteers. Later, it also became a repository for monies from other activities, including proceeds from an annual road race.
The quilting fund is currently operated in a private account at the Edgartown National Bank. Glenna F. Barkan, one of the original quilters, has said she controls the account, and has sole access to its funds.
At the core of the controversy is a check written two years ago on the fund and signed by Ms. Barkan. The woman for whom the check was issued came to town hall Feb. 2, 2012 after the check was refused at Stop & Shop to inquire about it. In February of this year, the town accountant raised the issue with selectmen, who were then advised on the matter by the town’s special labor counsel, Jack Collins. Mr. Collins recommended that the selectmen conduct an initial police investigation, “to determine whether laws are being violated and if all monies have been properly accounted for,” according to a memorandum addressed to selectmen last month.
Asked why it took two years for this matter to be made public, town administrator Robert L. Whritenour said the issue resurfaced this year when the town accountant, Arthur Gallagher, received a complaint from a private citizen about the issue. Mr. Gallagher did not return several calls from the Gazette.
After police concluded they did not have enough information to charge Mr. Wey with criminal activity, Mr. Collins advised the town to enlist one or more outside investigators with financial expertise to determine whether there was misconduct.
“In my opinion, since the initial findings indicate potentially a great many irregularities, it would be appropriate for you to engage the services of an outside investigator to locate missing documents, to more closely question the director and others who have knowledge of these matters, and to determine if laws are being violated...,” Mr. Collins wrote in a memorandum to selectmen which was read to the public Monday.
Mr. Wey told police 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 in 2008, and a new fuel assistance fund was set up under the personal control of Ms. Barkan. Private management of the fund “made it easier for Wey to distribute the money without the extra bureaucratic paperwork that took time when the money was urgently needed,” the police wrote in the report, paraphrasing the rationale given by Mr. Wey. Mr. Manzi died several years ago.
Mr. Collins said if evidence of civil or criminal misconduct is found, Mr. Wey could be charged for the cost of the investigation as well as the missing funds.
“If it turns out that he has appropriated town money, and has been collecting rent money from a couple of organizations and was not depositing that in a town treasury . . . then there is a statute that provides that the cost of the investigation as well as the money that was not deposited to the town would be coming out of his pension,” Mr. Collins said.
Mr. Wey told the Gazette he intended to comply with the investigation, with the assistance of counsel, and may pursue legal action against the town. However, he maintained that he had already explained the situation to the town administrator two years ago.
The quilting fund has several apparent sources of income, which include private donations, money raised through the annual Turkey Trot Race and donations provided by Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon groups for the use of the council on aging building. The groups began using the facility eight years ago, according to Mr. Wey, who collects their donations and transfers them to Ms. Barkan for deposit in the quilting fund. He said the group knows that the donations go to that purpose.
Mr. Collins said that as a department head, Mr. Wey is expected to know the applicable laws, which prohibit the diversion of town funds to private funds.
“It doesn’t matter whether he was playing Santa Claus or Robin Hood or... helping the right people,” Mr. Collins said. “The intention is not the issue.”
Mr. Wey called the investigation a “witch hunt.” He said that the town had offered him early retirement last October, which he turned down in January.
“I wanted to stay and continue my work, and as long as I make a difference I want to stay,” he said Tuesday.
Board chairman Walter Vail said there was no connection between the retirement offer and the current investigation.
At Monday’s meeting, the room swelled with a rowdy group of senior citizens, some of whom questioned the selectmen’s judgment in the matter. They pleaded with the board to put Mr. Wey back to work.
Kerry Scott, a former selectman, said Mr. Wey’s work at the senior center was motivated by a heartfelt desire to help.
“It’s like you are taking something wonderful and making it awful,” she said. “I want you to stop, I think we are better than this... I know a witch hunt when I see one.”
A few members of the senior center who play cards there said they wanted to see the senior center revert to its normal operations.
“We would like to see him in his office so that he can come out and see us enjoying ourselves,” said Dorothy Underwood, an Oak Bluffs resident.
Four selectmen voted to continue the investigation, with Gail Barmakian abstaining.
Ms. Barmakian said she didn’t think the issue should be dealt with publicly. She said she wanted a chance to speak with special labor counsel in an executive session. Ms. Barmakian also called attention to the flow of information during the investigation.
“I am asking for facts, because right now I am in the dark and I have been kept in the dark,” she said.
Mr. Vail decided to proceed in public session, saying he wanted to maintain transparency with the voters.
“I want to make sure that everybody here and everybody who may be watching understands that we have a continuing investigation and it’s important to focus on what his reasoning is for that investigation,” Mr. Vail said.
Selectmen Kathy Burton agreed.
“When labor counsel, whom we hire to make recommendations to us, and makes a recommendation, I perfectly believe we should follow it and get to the bottom of whatever this is,” she said.
“I want to get it cleaned up and put it behind us,” said selectmen Michael Santoro.