Chelsea had banned contractor who spurred kickback allegations (March 7, 2011)

CHELSEA — A contractor at the center of an alleged kickback scheme that ensnared the town’s top official had been barred from town work in 1999 after reportedly overbilling for road sand.

But by 2006, the contractor — Frank Monroe of Whitefield — was again doing work for the town despite the ban. Today, he’s in charge of Chelsea’s road sand and owns the right to plow in winter.

Monroe’s duties placed him in the center of what Stephen Langsdorf, a lawyer representing the town, described as a kickback scheme hatched by Board of Selectmen Chairman Carole Swan. In late January, he said, Swan asked Monroe to inflate the town’s sand bill so she could get a kickback of $10,000. That led to Swan’s arrest Feb. 10 on charges of aggravated forgery, theft and improper compensation for services.

Last week, former Town Manager Bob Drisko said Monroe was fired in 1999 because the contractor had charged the town for more sand than was delivered. “I had Frank sign a statement that says he could not bid on any town contracts,” Drisko said in an interview.

Drisko said Monroe spread so much sand on winter roads that the town had to buy more at escalated midwinter prices.

Peter Coughlan, head of community services for the state Department of Transportation’s Maine Local Roads Center, said someone from his division also helped Drisko measure the amount of material Monroe delivered to the town’s sand shed.

“I went over there after (Monroe) gave us the bill, and I said, ‘No way that’s the amount of sand I contracted for,'” Drisko said. “They came over and we did a physical measurement of the sand pile and it was exactly half of what we were billed for — instead of 200 cubic yards, we only got 100.

“When I read about the (alleged) kickbacks (from Monroe to Swan) in the newspaper, I said, ‘Oh, my God,’ and wondered if something like that was happening back then,” Drisko said.

Rick Danforth, who was a selectman at the time, said selectmen subsequently fired Monroe after discussing the case in executive session on May 3, 1999.

In response, Monroe hired attorney Mark Susi to sue the town. But Drisko said Monroe backed down after Susi received proof of Monroe’s overbilling.

Attempts to reach Susi — who has since retired from law – were unsuccessful last week.

That was 1999. By 2006, after Drisko departed as town manager, Danforth said few contractors were bidding on road projects. Most were afraid of backlash from Swan, Danforth said.

So Monroe — facing little competition, and with few officials in office who recalled his 1999 ban — bid for and won the plowing contract. He’s held it ever since.

Selectmen voted unanimously Oct. 10, 2006, to award Monroe the town’s two-year plow contract. He was the low bidder and garnered a $177,625 award. The motion was made by Swan and seconded by Selectman Guy Berthiaume.

Danforth said Monroe then rebid and won the pact in 2008. When the contract ended for the 2008-10 season, the contract for 2010-12 was not rebid.

Langsdorf said Monroe currently is working under the terms of last year’s plow contract, receiving the same sum — about $19,000 a month. He said he’d recommend that the town put the plowing contract out to bid again after this season ends.

Danforth said no one will ever know if Swan encouraged Monroe to submit a bid in 2006.

“We would have had no control of what she said outside (the Town Office),” Danforth said. “We weren’t getting a lot of contractors bidding on projects. He came in, and I think some of the minutes show we discussed past problems and were willing to work with him and go forward.”

Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office Detective David Bucknam said Monroe is not being investigated. Nor is Langsdorf recommending an investigation into Monroe.

Kennebec County District Attorney Evert Fowle “explained to me he saw Frank as a victim and commended him for coming forward,” Langsdorf said.

Monroe said last week that he is not represented by an attorney. “I’m really making no comment,” he said.

— Kennebec Journal City Editor Bob Mentzinger and Staff Writer Betty Adams contributed to this report.

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