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Concerns about recent Town Hall theft

April 8, 2013

The Walpole town employee who stole tax dollars in January, and was allowed to avoid criminal charges in exchange for stepping down from her post, deserved greater punishment than what she got, and government integrity is at stake as a direct result of officials’ actions in response to this crime.

If town officials wonder why there are so many residents who are skeptical of their government and town employees these days, their own handling of this crime might be an answer.

Following a tip to 180, The Walpole Times reported last month that longtime Walpole Finance Department employee Karen Connolly resigned from her job in January after stealing $3,654 in cash from residents’ tax bills as they arrived to her department.

Town Administrator Michael Boynton told the Times that he was satisfied with the District Attorney’s decision not to pursue charges against her, in exchange for her resignation.

But Connolly’s punishment amounts to a slap on the wrist in comparison to the fates of government employees in other communities across the country who stole similar amounts of tax dollars in similar circumstances.

In January, a New Jersey state employee, who stole $6,630 in tax dollars that he oversaw working for the state Division of Taxation, was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to pay back the money in restitution. The man was also banned from ever again working for the government.

That same month, a judge sentenced a former public school official in Kalamazoo, Mich. to one day in jail for using her school district’s credit card to pay for $1,074 in personal expenses. She also had to pay attorney fees, court costs, fines, and state fees.

In February, a school janitor in Methuen, Mass. was sentenced to 30 days in jail for stealing $5,815 from her union. The punishment was actually greater than prosecutors had asked for, because Judge Michael Uhlarick stressed that there “needs to be accountability.”

Yet here in Walpole, a town employee who stole more than $3,000 in tax dollars was simply asked to step down, and will face no legal punishment.

Boynton admitted to the Times that he even intended to keep the crime secret for the time being, claiming that it was a personnel matter only. That means if not for a rogue Town Hall source who had the courage to blow the whistle to a local muckraker, her termination would have been effectively hidden from any potential future employers, public or private, because there would be no information whatsoever of her crime.

Hiding it from the public puts taxpayers and businesses in other communities at risk. Connolly could well have ended up with a job handling money elsewhere, perhaps working for another government entity. Now that the Times publicized her theft, this becomes less of a possibility, but she still won’t have any criminal record to speak of.

Allowing a town employee to get away with theft, with no jail time and no criminal record, undermines government integrity. It sends a message to other town employees that stealing money, from taxpayers or otherwise, will simply result in no more than a request to step down from your post – hardly a significant burden.

In fact, perhaps Connolly was encouraged to commit the crime by the fact that two previous town employees had committed similar acts and both emerged essentially scot-free. In 2009, Walpole cop Tom Connor stole $10,000 from the police department’s evidence locker and officer David Haddigan stole groceries repeatedly from Stop & Shop. Neither officer received any legal punishment, and Haddigan now works for the county prison, as if nothing happened.

In each of these three cases, town officials argued that they didn’t want to seek criminal charges in part because of the high legal costs involved with fighting the town employee unions. But price is no object when it comes to justice. If taxpayers are robbed and public integrity is at stake, as is certainly the case with Connolly, the town should fight at all costs to get taxpayers the justice they deserve. Considering the way the town likes to throw around money on new trucks, the town certainly has plenty of money to take all three of these criminals to court, to ensure they pay for what they did and that they never again rob taxpayers or anyone else.

Pursuing charges against Connolly also would protect the town and its taxpayers in the future by sending a strong message to all town employees that theft in their service to the taxpayers, no matter how supposedly minor in nature, is not tolerated and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The cases of Haddigan, Connor, and Connolly serve as enablers to future town employees who may consider stealing money or goods. Those experiences show town employees that as long as they are unionized, the chances are high that they would face no legal punishment for theft, and the worst that could happen is a simple employment termination.

Boynton’s decision to impose a gag order on town employees to forbid them from publicly discussing a town employee who steals money is a particular problem because it breeds public cynicism, and makes residents suspicious of their government by nature. Taxpayers now must wonder if there are other incidents of town employees stealing money or committing crimes that were similarly covered up. Should taxpayers assume that any town employee who leaves town employment under surprise circumstances was involved in something devious?

Boynton also argued that the crime was committed against the town, and not taxpayers. But a town employee who steals tax dollars is directly stealing from taxpayers, no matter which way you couch it. Taxpayers deserve to know if their money is being stolen. Boynton’s gag order was not appropriate and suggests that Town Hall has a greater problem of transparency that needs to be addressed. If Boynton’s automatic reaction to a significant scandal is to ensure that it is kept from the public, perhaps there are other scandals going on at Town Hall that are similarly being withheld from the public.

Boynton is also now arguing that Town Hall should install security cameras to prevent future crimes. This plan in itself breeds even more public suspicion, particularly considering that Boynton emphatically told the Times that Connolly’s crime was an “isolated incident.”

If the vast majority of government employees are honest, hard-working people, as we have every reason to believe them to be, there should be no need for security cameras. Now that Boynton is fighting for cameras so vigorously, there might be reason to believe that this type of crime is more widespread than we are being led to believe. The installation of security cameras by itself assumes that all employees are up to no good.

The cameras also require town employees to work in what amounts to a police-state, along the lines of the proposal being brought up simultaneously by the School Committee to put security cameras in the high school and in the elementary schools. It’s not fair to town employees to subject them to this type of Orwellian treatment simply because of one incident that is supposedly “isolated.” It’s also not fair to citizens, who also must do business at Town Hall and will be subjected to surveillance in everything they do there.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom Driscoll permalink
    April 8, 2013 5:09 PM

    Sam – Great article. It takes a lot of brains to forfeit a $48,000 hack job to steal $3000. I wonder if she still gets a pension/post retirement medical benefits. I suspect this might be going on for some time especially when payouts are by insurance. Several years ago a friend who claimed injuries by a Walpole cop through police brutality received a “undisclosed” insurance settlement which avoided scrutiny as a town payment.

    KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK

    Tom Driscoll

  2. What a joke permalink
    April 8, 2013 6:07 PM

    Will there be a camera in the Town Administrators Office?
    Will the town hire someone to sit and watch these camerss all day?

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