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Senior Center ethics probe; Focus on O'Connor.

Byline: Susan Spencer

MILLBURY - The longtime executive director of the Millbury Council on Aging has been on administrative leave since April 25 pending an investigation into alleged misconduct around political activities.

Now, the chief of police is about to file a report with the state Ethics Commission regarding further allegations, uncovered during the initial investigation, of a potential financial conflict of interest between the nonprofit Friends of the Millbury Seniors and the Senior Center director.

According to a returned search warrant from Central District Court in Worcester, Police Chief Mark S. Moore was appointed by Town Manager Robert J. Spain Jr. on April 24 to investigate allegations made by town residents that Judith A. O'Connor, executive director of the Council on Aging, based at the Senior Center at 1 River St., had endorsed candidates for the April 24 town election.

Ms. O'Connor has held the position for approximately 37 years.

While he was investigating those allegations, Chief Moore said, he learned of allegations that Ms. O'Connor had asked elderly residents with no remaining family to assign, or will, assets to Friends of the Millbury Seniors or to her.

Chief Moore confirmed he is preparing to submit a report to the Ethics Commission asking it to investigate further the potential conflict of interest.

Friends of the Millbury Seniors is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization with the same address as the Senior Center. Its president, Helen Mankevetch, serves on the board of directors of the Council on Aging. Ms. O'Connor is listed as the contact person for the organization on its annual reports filed with the state attorney general's public charities division. She was also listed as an authorized distributor of funds from at least as far back as 2003 through 2008.

Joyce A. Ostrowski, a Town Hall employee who is filling in for Ms. O'Connor while she is on leave, reported to Mr. Spain in June that in her routine work at the Senior Center, she accidentally discovered a file containing a "Last Will and Testament" on Ms. O'Connor's town-owned computer. The file included a resident's unsigned will that listed the Friends of Millbury Seniors as one of the beneficiaries and named Ms. O'Connor as the executor and trustee.

She also found another resident's unsigned will listing Friends of the Millbury Seniors as a beneficiary and identifying the notary public on the document as Ms. O'Connor.

On June 21, after receiving a search warrant from Central District Court in Worcester, police searched Ms. O'Connor's computer and files at the Senior Center and bank records, statements and books related to the donating of assets in a will.

According to the returned search warrant, investigators found blank wills and quitclaim deeds; wills, durable powers of attorney and other documents pertaining to three residents or their estates; booklets related to estate planning; a CD and floppy disk; and sets of business cards.

The chief's affidavit says in part, "Friends of the Millbury Seniors, Inc. and Judith A. O'Connor are allegedly violating Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 268A. There are obvious and direct correlations between Judith A. O'Connor's Town of Millbury duties, activities, responsibilities and job performance and her participation, role and responsibilities to the Friends of the Millbury Seniors, Inc. These obvious intertwining of roles are in direct conflict of each other and cross ethic bounds."

Ms. O'Connor did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Meanwhile, Chief Moore confirmed he is preparing a report to the town manager regarding allegations of Ms. O'Connor's political activity at the Senior Center in April.

The search warrant affidavit says that at least two witnesses who were interviewed by Chief Moore reported that at lunch at the Senior Center on April 20, Ms. O'Connor reminded people to vote on the following Tuesday. She then allegedly went on to talk about the candidates for the two open seats on the Board of Selectmen and one open seat on the Board of Health, on which Ms. O'Connor serves.

The witnesses told Chief Moore that Ms. O'Connor said Selectman Francis B. King, who was running for re-election, was "a good friend" of the Senior Center. Ms. O'Connor allegedly cited Mr. King's donations for the summer concerts and other programs.

She then allegedly said that Sandra J. Cristo, another candidate for the board, and her husband did not support the Senior Center.

The witnesses said she did not comment about the third candidate for selectman, Frank Irr.

One witness alleged that Ms. O'Connor suggested he just vote for Mr. King and not vote for the other open seat, because if he also voted for Ms. Cristo, as he had indicated he would, "that's like taking a vote away from Franny."

Mr. King was re-elected with 1,163 votes; Ms. Cristo won a seat with 920 votes; Mr. Irr received 776 votes; and 606 ballots were blank.

Witnesses also told the chief that Ms. O'Connor endorsed Board of Health candidate William Wilkinson, who drives one of the Senior Center vans.

Incumbent Armand White won re-election to the Board of Health with 850 votes, over 780 votes for Mr. Wilkinson and 106 blank ballots.

Chief Moore said that after he submits his report within the next week on the alleged political activity, it will be up to the town manager, in consultation with town counsel, to decide on any action.

In the search warrant affidavit, Chief Moore wrote that these initial allegations involved possible violations of state law on municipal employee conduct as well as town rules and regulations.

Mr. Spain would not comment about a personnel issue.

"I didn't back that; I don't endorse it. I wish it didn't happen," Mr. King said in an interview about Ms. O'Connor's alleged public endorsement of him. "I hope it gets straightened out soon so we can get moving forward."

Ms. Cristo did not return a call for comment.

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: Ms. O'Connor
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 9, 2012
Words:979
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