SALEM — The former president of the Salem Firefighters Union, who was fired last year for allegedly misappropriating more than $25,000 in union charitable funds, says he kept “hundreds and hundreds” of receipts for donations that appear to be missing from the union office.
In testimony yesterday before the Civil Service Commission in Boston, where he has appealed his firing, former Lt. John O’Leary also provided explanations for what a city hearing officer called questionable and unverified cash donations he made to sports groups, youth organizations, politicians, fire unions and others.
The hearing, which will continue Monday, is providing conflicting and starkly different portraits of O’Leary’s actions from 2002 to 2010, when he almost single-handedly oversaw a union account at Greater Salem Employees Federal Credit Union.
At the heart of the city’s case are a number of letters from organizations or individuals who say they never received donations that O’Leary says he made on behalf of Salem Firefighters Local 172.
For example, the city hearing officer’s report cites a $500 withdrawal by O’Leary for Lynn Firefighter Robert Mullins. When the Salem union contacted Mullins, he wrote back: “There is no fund of any kind for myself. I have never received anything from anyone, not one cent.”
O’Leary said he knows Mullins and also knows there wasn’t a fund specifically set up for the firefighter. He said he made the donation to the Lynn Firefighters Union to “disburse as they see necessary.” He said he marked the donation for Mullins for record-keeping purposes.
O’Leary said he even recalls driving to Lynn to hand the cash donation to someone at their union office on Fayette Street. When he found no one in the office, he said, he gave it to a firefighter at the station.
The former union official was asked about another unsubstantiated donation to the Stephen O’Grady Fund, a charity in memory of the former director of the Salem Boys & Girls Club.
“I know this one for a fact,” he said. “This is a reimbursement for a (firefighter) to play in a (charity golf) tournament.” He identified the firefighter as Jack Rubin, who died in 2011.
O’Leary said he dealt almost exclusively in cash, making cash withdrawals from the charity fund, which was actually a savings account, or endorsing and cashing checks made out to two entities — an organization or individual and also Salem Firefighters Local 172.
O’Leary, through his attorney, denies he used the money for his own benefit, and says all of it went to charities or union-related causes.
Even though checks were often made out to a fund, such as the “William Hudson Fund” for a deceased firefighter, or the “Kevin Harvey Fund” for a politician running for office, O’Leary said those fund names were written down more for record-keeping purposes and that, in many cases, there were no such funds.
He said he used cash from the account to make charitable donations and to pay all sorts of charity-related expenses: raffle tickets, food and drink tabs, supplies, tickets to events, donations to other fire union charity funds and sponsorships.
Fire Lt. Richard Arno, who was vice president of the union under O’Leary, recalled seeing O’Leary handing out cash at William Hudson’s house when firefighters turned out one day to make repairs for the ailing firefighter and to grant a last wish, turning his basement into a beach.
When hearing officer Christopher Bowman asked if he could remember a specific individual who was handed funds, Arno cited an “electrician friend of Hudson’s.”
On several occasions, Bowman asked O’Leary if he ever went back to any of the groups to whom he made cash donations to see if they could verify the contributions.
O’Leary said he didn’t because he felt they wouldn’t keep records of cash transactions.
There was also conflicting testimony about the existence of a file for the charitable fund in the union’s office, which is at Fire Department headquarters — a file that O’Leary contends could validate many of his cash donations, but is now missing.
Arno said he remembers putting a charity receipt into the file and also seeing O’Leary work at a desk in the union office with folders from the file.
O’Leary even drew a sketch of the union office and marked the location of the file cabinet where the file was kept. He said he kept receipts there, fundraising information, thank-you letters and separate files on, among others, Hudson and late state Rep. Mike Ruane, who was an honorary firefighter.
O’Leary said the union, through the charitable fund, made repairs to Ruane’s porch and paid funeral-related expenses.
At one point, O’Leary was asked to estimate how many receipts for expenses and donations were in the files.
“I’m going to say hundreds and hundreds of them,” he said.
Lt. Tim Flynn, secretary-treasurer of the union since 2004, said he shared a desk with O’Leary in the union office for several years.
Asked if he was aware of a separate file for the charity account in that office, Flynn replied, “None that I know of.”
Flynn said the charity account was not his responsibility, although he did get involved with it a few times. He said he never saw any receipts for that account.
Flynn was also asked about meetings the newly elected officers had with O’Leary in 2011 after someone else had taken over the account and raised concerns about all the cash transactions and the difficulty verifying donations.
He was asked if he recalled O’Leary’s response to questions union officials posed about the funds.
According to Flynn, O’Leary replied: “The money may not have (gone) to the charity that was written down, but (I) may have given it as cash to another.”
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CORRECTION -- In the print edition of this story, the quote "I have never received anything from anyone" was misattributed in a headline. The person who said this was Robert Mullins, a Lynn firefighter.