State knocks Abington for illegal scrap metal sales

CORRECTION: This article was updated to clarify that the Inspector General’s office first investigated the scrap metal sales in 2021; it had never previously warned the town about that specific practice.

Abington’s leadership team failed to end a series of longstanding but questionable bidding and operational practices in the highway department despite previous warnings, according to a new report from the state’s top watchdog.

The state Inspector General says Abington’s highway department for years sold surplus metal to local scrap yards for cash, and then used that money as a petty cash fund for the highway department instead of depositing it in the town treasury.

During that investigation, the Inspector General’s Office also found that the town never implemented a number of promised changes at the department stemming from multiple prior state investigations. Specifically, it found that highway department employees were continuing to work on personal vehicles inside department garages despite both the state Ethics Commission and Inspector General’s office concluding the practice was improper.

“Despite the town manager’s assurances of corrective action, several items discussed with the OIG remained unaddressed,” the report states. 

Current Town Manager Scott Lambiase, who took over in 2020, was unaware of the highway department’s practices, the previous state investigations, or the unfulfilled policy changes, the report says.

“As soon as I found out, that ended,” Lambiase said in an interview with Abington News Thursday.

Abington Selectmen Chairman Alex Hagerty also placed blame with “previous management” and said that moving forward the town was “committed to ensuring the recommended actions of the Inspector General are implemented and adhered to.”

Rick LaFond served as Abington’s Town Manager from 2013 to 2020, but is not specifically named in the Inspector General’s report. The report instead focuses largely on John Caine, the town’s former Assistant Superintendent for Vehicle Maintenance, who was suspended in 2021 for his role in the scrap metal sales.

A spokeswoman for the Inspector General’s office said Abington currently does not face any additional penalties or sanctions.

The report outlines 13 actions the Town of Abington should take including updating town procurement policies, ensure compliance with the town’s cash turnover policies, adopt policies around the use of town-owned property for personal use, and establish a way to communicate oversight and audit recommendations to incoming town administrators.

Lambiase said every recommendation has already been put in place, or is in the process of being implemented.

Hagerty said the report will be on the board’s Sept. 11 meeting agenda, and he expects the board will ask its outside auditing firm to verify that all the changes have been put in place.

Scrutiny started in 2007

The state first started looking into the highway department’s operations back in 2007. Acting on a complaint, the state Ethics Commission found that department employees were working on personal vehicles after hours at town garages. (Employees argued that because they were required to use personal tools for town jobs, it was easier to bring their personal vehicles to the town garage than transport their tools back home.) Another state Ethics Commission investigation in 2012 found things unchanged. In both cases, the state asked the town to adopt a formal policy guiding the practice.

Both times “the town drafted policy language, but never approved or implemented the policy,” the report says.

In 2012, Abington’s then-town manager, John D’Agostino, sent an email to Caine and the Board of Selectmen that said he couldn’t “in good conscience allow this work on town property to continue without the proper [insurance] coverage in place . . . I am not in favor of using municipal property for private purposes.” However, the practice continued under Caine’s supervision, according to the report.

“In an August 2017 meeting, the OIG informed the town that Caine had repaired numerous vehicles in the town-owned garage and subsequently sold them on Craigslist,” the report says. “The OIG discussed its concerns over the town’s practice of allowing mechanics to use the municipal garage for these purposes. Those concerns included overhead costs, liability and insurance issues; the potential for time abuse and inventory theft; and conflicts of interest.”

The 2017 meeting also accused Caine of buying a surplus car from the town for $350, fixing it up and selling it for $3,500, and receiving more overtime pay than any other employee despite being assistant superintendent. In addition, the state says the department would allow employees to borrow town equipment for personal use, and that it lost track of a department laptop that was later found being used by a former department employee at their house.

The Inspector General’s office in 2017 gave Abington four tasks: 1) Adopt a written policy prohibiting employees from working on non-town-owned vehicles on town property; 2) Maintain an accurate inventory of town-owned vehicles and small equipment; 3) Implement a surplus disposition policy for supplies valued at less than $10,000 in compliance with Chapter 30B; and 4) Adopt a centralized written procurement policy and properly train department heads and others with delegated procurement authority on that policy.

The report contains correspondence between LaFond and the Inspector General’s office from 2017 and 2018 detailing steps taken by the town to address the problems, including establishing July 1, 2018 as the date employees would no longer be allowed to work on personal vehicles.

In 2017, the town also gave highway department employees money to purchase tools and equipment so mechanics wouldn’t have to use their own. Caine was among those who received a salary increase to cover the cost of buying work tools.

“[Caine] told the mechanics they were cleared to resume fixing their cars in the garage,” the report says. “Also, contrary to the town manager’s directives, Caine never used the additional funding to purchase tools.”

Selling scrap for cash

In 2021, the Inspector General’s office received an anonymous complaint that the town’s Public Works Department was selling surplus scrap metal for cash. The state report says the department would take leftover materials from town projects and sell it to local scrap yard.

The name of the company is not included in the report.

Lambiase said the Inspector General’s office called and asked him to investigate the complaint, which he did.

Caine told investigators he would keep the cash in a desk drawer and use it to buy food and drinks for department employees. The company told state investigators it had paid the town $9,000 for scrap metal between 2016 and 2021. During the 2021 investigation, Caine turned over an envelope containing $3,000.

“However, the town has no documentation to show how Caine spent the money received from the scrap metal sales,” the report states. “Several long-tenured employees recalled receiving pizza and coffee on occasion, while many other DPW employees were unaware of the practice and do not recall ever receiving food or drinks.”

Some department employees said they knew Caine kept cash in a desk in an unlocked desk drawer.

Because no records were kept, the Inspector General says it can’t determine if the department received more than $9,000 in cash over the years, how much was spent, and what it was spent on. 

Lambiase, who spent nearly 20 years in local government prior to coming to Abington, said he had never heard of a department keeping thousands of dollars of cash on hand for employee events.

“That’s definitely unacceptable,” he said. “I was pretty shocked to find out what was going on.”

The state spokeswoman said she couldn’t confirm or deny whether her office had made any criminal referrals relative to the investigation.

The town’s highway, parks, and sewer departments were combined into a public works department in 2016, with John Stone appointed department superintendent.

Caine was placed on paid administrative leave during the investigation and later signed what Lambiase described as a “separation agreement” to avoid being officially fired.

Abington News was aware of Cain’s departure and last year requested a copy of the town’s  disciplinary report. The version provided by town’s lawyers was mostly redacted except for a few paragraphs recapping the Inspector General’s 2017 findings. The Inspector General’s office at that time declined to confirm whether it was once again investigating the town. 

Lambiase said the town currently pays the mechanic a stipend for the use of his personal tools, and is in the process of buying more specialized tools for department use.

The report did criticize Stone for not stopping department employees from working on their personal vehicles; he said it was because the previous Town Manager didn’t show much interest in stopping it either.

Lambiase said Stone was cooperative during the investigation and quickly implemented new policies that addressed the state’s concerns.

“He’s done a great job,” Lambiase said.

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