In August 2010, we started noticing something suspicious at the Chelsea Town Office.
People were quitting in droves.
That left one selectman in charge of handing out and overseeing the town’s road work.
Which may be one reason why her husband’s firm got 92% of the municipal expenditure and a similar cut of nearly $400,000 in emergency federal disaster aid over the course of several years for which records were available.
Of course, not all the records we wanted were available, so we filed Freedom of Access requests and worked with the ousted officials to fill in the blanks. Meanwhile, new officials — friends and family of the selectman — were installed in public posts key to awarding road contracts, with outsized benefits and without having to apply.
At a time of massive destaffing and organizational malaise at newspapers nationwide, our two-year investigation found evidence of kickback schemes, environmental damage, racketeering and tax evasion that led to state charges and then a federal indictment. The Maine Press Association recognized our work with the 2011 investigative reporting award, a coveted honor usually given to larger news organizations with bigger staffs.
It’s the kind of community-focused investigative journalism that is disappearing from even the big metropolitan newspapers.
Of the 86 stories we wrote on contracting irregularities in Chelsea, here are the key ones, led by staff reporter Mechele Cooper. I’ll add as time allows.
- Aug. 22, 2010: Road contract decisions questioned, defended
- Feb. 10, 2011: Chelsea official faces forgery probe
- Feb. 11, 2011: Chelsea selectman turns self in, faces charges
- Feb. 17, 2011: Charges in Chelsea may trigger FBI probe
- Feb. 20, 2011: The $77,000 patch job
- Feb. 24, 2011: Chelsea seeks return to normal
- March 3, 2011: Probe now includes husband of selectman
- March 7, 2011: Chelsea had banned contractor who spurred kickback allegations
- March 16, 2011: Roads over budget far more than other towns
- April 1, 2011: Chelsea clerk hires lawyer to defend contract
- Aug. 6, 2011: Swan pleads not guilty
- March 2, 2012: Swan, husband indicted in federal court