Chelsea official faces forgery probe (Feb. 10, 2011)

Charges against Swan could come within 48 hours, sheriff says

By Betty Adams badams@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

and Mechele Cooper mcooper@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

CHELSEA — Board of Selectmen Chairman Carole Swan is the target of a criminal investigation by the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office pertaining to her official duties.

Swan, 52, could be charged with forgery within 48 hours, Sheriff Randall Liberty said.

Liberty said Wednesday the investigation began about a week ago. He said Swan has already been questioned in the case.

Leonard Sharon, an attorney representing Swan, said he was seeking more information about the case from District Attorney Evert Fowle, who was unavailable Wednesday.

Swan, a selectman for almost 19 years, was handed a trespass notice by the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office indicating she is subject to arrest if she appears at the Town Office, Sharon said.

Sharon indicated Swan wants the trespass order modified so she can continue to function as a selectman.

“My job is to see if she can get it modified, or come to some kind of an agreement that allows her to go there to perform her elected duties,” Sharon said.

Currently, two people serve on the three-person Board of Selectmen: Swan and Selectman Michael Pushard. Former Selectman Tanya Condon resigned, citing family obligations, in November 2010 — the seventh town employee to quit in 15 months.

On Wednesday, Pushard and Town Manager Angela Gordon retained lawyer Stephen Langsdorf to represent the town in the Swan case.

“I was advised (authorities) are investigating and going to the grand jury,” Langsdorf said Wednesday.

A grand jury currently is sitting in Kennebec County Superior Court.

The selectmen’s meeting scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Friday has been cancelled because of “a scheduling conflict,” Town Clerk Flavia “Cookie” Kelley said Wednesday.

Langsdorf said no selectmen’s meeting will be scheduled “until we determine how to deal with” the trespass issue.

“Beyond that,” he said, “I’ve been brought into protect the interests of the town in whatever way it needs to be protected.”

Langsdorf said some files pertaining to the investigation have been removed from the Town Office. He did not specify whether officials or investigators removed them.

Details of the investigation have been closely held, but controversy has reigned recently in Chelsea over the awarding of municipal road contracts.

In Chelsea, selectmen may award contracts in the absence of a town manager. But the town’s ethics policy prohibits selectmen from entering into contracts with members of their immediate families, or steering work to businesses “which they or their immediate family own or manage.”

The town’s contracting rules also require officials to seek bids for contracts exceeding $10,000 unless they are an emergency.

In August 2010, a Kennebec Journal review of Chelsea road contracts found selectmen may have averted that rule by declaring projects as emergencies and billing single contractors with multiple, partial invoices to stay below the $10,000 bid threshold and award road work without bids.

Most often, according to town records, Chelsea road contracting work in recent years was awarded to Marshall Swan, the husband of Carole Swan. Carole Swan has denied using her place as a town official to influence town contracts, amid questioning from residents and other contractors.

Those accusations peaked after a 2009 road project on Windsor Road performed by Marshall Swan sparked environmental sanctions from the state.

The project, a $53,000 culvert replacement to alleviate road flooding, was done without competitive bidding because the town deemed the job an emergency. The Maine Department of Environmental

Protection may seek penalties from the town because the work caused a protected wetland to be filled and was done without a state permit.

In response to the controversy, Carole Swan and Pushard recently appointed a five-person road advisory committee made up exclusively of local contractors to handle contracting on roads.

On Wednesday, citizens seemed disturbed — but not stunned — by news of the investigation.

“As a community member, I’m very sad to know this is happening,” said Linda Leotsakos, who’s served on the Planning Board and Budget Committee. “However, I’m equally not surprised. A number of people have been trying to get information about town finances and wanting to help in other capacities like the road committee, and we’ve been repressed.”

Susan Sargent, a former town manager, said Town Office staff have barred her from reading warrants to learn more about road work.

Sherrill Hallett, a school board member, said she also has been prevented from reading warrants that list town expenditures.

“I went out there and haven’t been able to look at the warrants,” Hallett said. “I feel really sad for the town. I hope the town can pick up the pieces and go on.”

Paul Soucy — a Chelsea contractor who refused to serve on the new roads panel — said an investigation is overdue.

“I can’t imagine why it’s gone on this long,” Soucy said. “They have no fear of being prosecuted or anything like this. What they’ve been doing is wrong.”

Mark Warren, another contractor, said he was relieved to hear about the investigation.

“I’ve been sitting here wondering why the system is so broken that this is allowed to happen, and lo and behold, something is being done,” Warren said. “It’s very refreshing that these people are being held accountable.”

But Leotsakos’ biggest concern is that the town is now effectively left with just one selectman.

“I am sure that the good citizens in Chelsea will pull together to get us through this mess,” Leotsakos said. “There are more caring, good people in Chelsea than not.”

Staff Writer Craig Crosby contributed to this report.

Betty Adams — 621-5631
badams@centralmaine.com

Mechele Cooper — 623-3811, ext. 408
mcooper@centralmaine.com

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