Editorial: Northampton police payroll case shows mercy, but is it deserved?

Last modified: Thursday, December 19, 2013
Some Northampton residents and at least one city councilor believe payroll fraud within the police department should have resulted in criminal charges. They aren’t satisfied that this matter ended with two people leaving their jobs and with one of them repaying the city for wages she wrongly received due to doctored time sheets, plus other costs.

Hampden District Attorney Mark Mastroianni, who oversaw an investigation into payroll fraud, chose not to prosecute, saying the burden of proving guilt in a criminal case against Maryann Keating would have been high. Still, it was not impossible to bring charges. She caught a break here — and we are among those wondering why.

We had urged that this matter be resolved quickly. It was, but not without controversy.

The incident reflects badly on the department and should lead to an unflinching appraisal of department protocols. The department clearly had a problem with payroll record-keeping — and must fix it. The city and its taxpayers will recover from Keating what was taken. While Northampton is being made financially “whole,” this outcome may cost the department in lost community trust.

Along with Keating, the case involved former police Capt. Scott Savino, a 25-year veteran of the department with a good record who was the third-highest-paid member of the force. Keating was a six-year civilian employee.

When Police Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz learned of possible wrongdoing in September, he brought the matter to Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, who referred it to Mastroianni because of his office’s close ties with the Northampton force.

Both of those steps were proper and necessary. The department shouldn’t investigate itself and the DA’s office held at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Mastroianni’s office looked at the pay system for civilian employees and interviewed them and officers on the force. They reviewed financial records, Keating’s pay history and studied the department’s system of flex time, its oversight practices and protocols for reviewing and approving time cards.

Mastroianni determined that “after full review, there were clear improprieties” involving Keating’s pay. In a letter to Sienkiewicz, Mastroianni said an analysis showed Keating received $18,000 in pay for hours she did not work. He also said Savino “was responsible for knowingly verifying a small portion of the unworked hours.” The remainder of the pay received without working was achieved by processing time sheets without approval.

But those improprieties did not lead to criminal charges. In the wake of Mastroianni’s report, the city reached an agreement with Savino and Keating in which Savino retired, Keating resigned and restitution will be made. Keating is required to repay the city $30,000. Savino, who is eligible to apply for retirement benefits, will receive $29,000 in banked sick time pay, but forfeited $8,300 in unused vacation pay.

While Mastroianni found wrongdoing, he noted that the standard of proof to successfully prosecute criminal charges would be much higher than that needed to settle the case outside of a courtroom. Further, he concluded that the fraud went no further than Keating and Savino.

That is reassuring, but it leaves the fact that two people who worked for the police department were engaged in fraud and will not face criminal consequences. That is in keeping with some recent problems, including the unlawful use of city equipment by employees. Still, citizens are left to wonder if they’d be shown similar mercy by a prosecutor.