BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The state Civil Service Commission upheld the firing of former Fire Department Lt. John O’Leary, who was terminated by the city for the alleged misappropriation of union charitable funds.
In a ruling announced yesterday, Civil Service Chairman Christopher Bowman said O’Leary “misappropriated funds meant for local charities,” an action he said “is egregious and warrants termination.”
In a 45-page ruling, Bowman wrote that O’Leary “irrevocably violated (public) trust, and there is no place for him in the Salem Fire Department.”
O’Leary, a 17-year veteran, was terminated in 2012.
There was no word on whether O’Leary will appeal. Attorney Joseph Dever, who represented the former arson investigator before the commission, said he is still reviewing the decision.
A former president of the Salem Firefighters Union, O’Leary was an executive board member who oversaw a charitable fund that the union established, in part, to improve its public image during a political fight with former Mayor Stanley Usovicz.
Over a decade, the union entered into four contracts with All Pro Productions, a fundraising company that staged softball games, comedy nights and other events for the union, according to the ruling. Telemarketers were hired to solicit funds by phone from Salem residents and businesses. From 2002 to 2010, approximately $344,000 was raised.
O’Leary withdrew funds from the account by direct cash withdrawals or bank checks, ostensibly to donate to local charities, youth organizations and other causes.
“The crux of this case,” Bowman wrote in his findings of fact, “centers around whether, at any time from 2002 to 2010, after receiving a cash withdrawal or cashing a bank check, Mr. O’Leary gave the money to the intended recipient or not; and/or whether he used some or all of those funds for his personal benefit.”
In making his ruling, Bowman strongly disagreed with city findings on the extent of the alleged misappropriations, which he concluded was considerably less than the $25,000 cited in a city report.
He cited only five instances of alleged misappropriations totaling $2,100: reported donations to the Stephen O’Grady Fund ($400); Salem High Golf ($200); Lynn Firefighter Robert Mullins Fund ($500); Salem Recreation ($500) and Salem Cartoon Basketball League ($500).
On those five occasions, Bowman said O’Leary was “untruthful by stating that funds were withdrawn from the fundraising account and given to local charities. Those funds were not received by the local charities...”
The chairman also stated that O’Leary acknowledged withdrawing funds from the fundraising account to pay for himself and his wife to fly to the Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Colorado.
“It appears that Mr. O’Leary was the only firefighter not to reimburse the account for these expenses,” he stated.
While upholding the firing of O’Leary, Bowman was highly critical of a report by an accountant hired by the Salem Firefighters Union — a report that was used as the basis for the city’s findings against O’Leary. The accountant was a “personal friend” of a Salem firefighter, never spoke with O’Leary, relied on “hearsay statements” and did not examine the actions of others in the fire union involved with the charitable fund, Bowman stated.
He said it “appears that there was a concerted effort to direct the review entirely toward the actions of Mr. O’Leary, as opposed to other individuals who, at various times, also had a fiduciary responsibility here.”
While the city solicitor and Salem fire chief accepted the findings of the accountant’s report, “I do not,” Bowman wrote.
However, in those five instances of alleged misappropriations, he found O’Leary “more likely than not had never donated the funds.” He said O’Leary’s testimony, in one case, “did not ring true to me.” In another instance, he called O’Leary’s testimony “self-serving.”
Bowman also was highly critical of the Salem Firefighters Union, which he said set up a charitable fund to improve its image in the community during a political fight with a former Salem mayor, rather than to do charitable work. Nearly two-thirds of the money raised from Salem residents and events went to fundraising expenses and to a professional fundraising company, he said.
“...It appears that the primary impetus for this entire enterprise had more to do with ‘coalition-building’ and burnishing the image of Local 172 than making donations to local charities,” he wrote.
“Of those funds actually retained by (the Salem Firefighters Union), thousands of dollars were spent on such items as hospitality rooms, food, alcohol, holiday parties and retirement functions.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.