SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

June 5, 2013

Our view: 'Charity' begins at home for Salem union

If the recent Civil Service hearing on the firing of former Salem fire Lt. John O’Leary weren’t embarrassing enough, O’Leary’s testimony revealed the cynical nature of “charitable” fundraising by the fire department’s union.

O’Leary was fired last August for the alleged misuse of more than $25,000 in union charitable funds between 2002 and 2010. A city hearing officer said the money appeared to be “misappropriated for the personal benefit of John O’Leary.”

O’Leary, a former union president, has contested his firing, which led to last week’s hearing before the state Civil Service Commission and some revealing testimony by the 16-year department veteran.

The charitable account in question, it seems, wasn’t created as a way for firefighters to give back to the community. Instead, O’Leary testified, it was part of a public relations campaign for the union, which was embroiled in a toe-to-toe fight with then-Mayor Stan Usovicz over Fire Department staffing levels.

O’Leary, in his testimony last week, said the firefighters union was getting a lot of “bad press … which made us look like the bad guys. … We wanted to make our image look better by giving back to the community.”

The union hired All-Pro Productions, a fundraising firm co-founded by former New England Patriot Fred Smerlas, to solicit donations on their behalf.

The union’s contract with All-Pro called for the union to get about a third of the money raised in its name. The rest went to All-Pro and a telemarketing company that made solicitation calls to local residents and businesses.

So, at best, about 33 cents on every dollar local residents donated to the union’s charity actually made it to the local group. That would be bad enough if it was the end of the story.

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