, Salem, MA

June 5, 2013

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

The Salem News

---- — 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.

It is not.

It seems the account from which O’Leary is accused of misappropriating funds wasn’t a charitable account at all.

Instead, the account often worked more like a political action committee, with the firefighters using the money raised from citizen donations to curry favor with local politicians.

At the fundraising events staged for the union by All-Pro, there would often be a meet-and-greet afterward where ticket holders could meet pro athletes and other celebrities. O’Leary testified last week that as part of the public relations campaign, the union often sent tickets to local city councilors and other politicians.

O’Leary said the union also used money from the account to buy tickets to events sponsored by local officials, including a boat cruise by former City Councilor Kevin Harvey, whom the union backed in his mayoral campaign against Usovicz.

“We tried to stay on the politicians’ good side because we were in a nasty dispute with the city,” O’Leary said.

As this was going on, local youth and sports groups were supposed to be receiving money from the union, according to O’Leary’s record-keeping. Many did. Yet a 2010 review revealed at least 10 groups who could not verify receiving any money from the union. The union has some records and receipts, but most appear to be missing.

If you are one of the citizens duped into donating to the union during that time, feel free to be sick to your stomach now.

There is a small comfort in the fact that this information came to light because of the work of firefighters themselves, who ousted O’Leary as union president in 2010.

Hopefully, the larger effect here will be that citizens will look at public safety fundraising efforts with a more skeptical eye. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions before you donate. You never know if your hard- earned dollar — well, 33 cents of it anyway — is buying new soccer balls for a youth league or politicians for a union.