Ex-school leader pleads innocent in felony case
MIDDLEBURY — Former longtime Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Thomas O’Brien pleaded innocent on Feb. 29 to a felony charge of Embezzlement-Official Capacity in Addison County Superior Court’s Criminal Division and was released on his own recognizance.
O’Brien — a former Vermont Superintendent of the Year who led ANwSU for 13 years before stepping down in June 2014 — is accused of improperly ordering an ANwSU employee to pay him $4,423.28 for unused vacation time and to have three other administrators also compensated in a similar manner, all despite clauses in their contracts that stated only the ANwSU board had the authority to order such payments.
According to court documents, O’Brien, a 68-year-old Orwell resident, if convicted could face up to 10 years in prison or a fine of $1,000, or both.
His, attorney, Douglas Kallen of Burton, gave the Independent a statement on Friday that noted O’Brien has no prior criminal record and called the dispute between the ANwSU and O’Brien not a criminal issue.
Kallen noted that the unused vacation leave in 2014 amounted to nine days.
“Any disagreement concerning the protocol for payment of unused vacation leave between a superintendent and a board is essentially a civil matter,” Kallen said in the emailed statement. “We are confident that the evidence will show that Tom O’Brien has not embezzled any money and has not committed any crime whatsoever.”
The Vermont Association of Educational Office Professionals in 2009 named O’Brien the Vermont Superintendent of the Year. O’Brien also during his tenure negotiated the first district-wide contracts for teachers and support personnel and oversaw three efforts to unify ANwSU under one-board governance. On March 1, ANwSU voters (on a fourth try) backed such a plan overwhelmingly.
O’Brien’s lawyer, Douglas Kallen of Bergeron, Paradis and Fitzpatrick in Burlington, said that last May “it was noted by a representative of the Vermont Superintendents Association that Tom O’Brien was one of the most capable and dedicated professionals in his field.”
According to an affidavit filed by Vergennes police on Feb. 9, their investigation of O’Brien began on April 2, 2015, when former ANwSU board chairman Jeffry Glassberg came to the city police station and asked to file a complaint against the former superintendent.
Glassberg brought with him, the affidavit stated, a copy of O’Brien’s contract, which included a provision stating, “Unused vacation leave will not be reimbursed except by specific action of the board,” and a memo from O’Brien to the ANwSU payroll officer directing her to “pay ‘Administrators’ for vacation days not taken.”
The other administrators in question were former Vergennes Union High School Principal Ed Webbley, former Addison Central School Principal and Assistant Superintendent Wayne Howe, former ANwSU Special Education Coordinator Elizabeth Lewis, and former ANwSU Business Manager Kathy Cannon. The affidavit did not include the amounts they were paid.
Vergennes police said they interviewed O’Brien at his home in Orwell in June. According to the affidavit, O’Brien said at that point he did not know the contract required him to obtain board permission, although, O’Brien said, he “should have known.”
Police also said they spoke in June to former ANwSU board chairwoman Laurie Gutowski, and in their words, she first “vaguely remembered” discussing with O’Brien payment for unused vacation time, and there was a relationship of “absolute trust” between O’Brien and the board. Later, police said Gutowski called back and clarified that she “did not remember having a specific conversation” on the topic of vacation pay with O’Brien.
By August 2015, Glassberg had announced publicly at a school board meeting there would be no prosecution “based on a statement by a former chair person,” according to the affidavit. But the state’s attorney then requested the case be re-opened, and Vergennes police conducted more interviews.
Police then met with Cannon, who claimed that O’Brien had “checked out” from his duties during his last year on the job, and that the job-sharing arrangement with Howe had not worked smoothly. On Aug. 20, police met again with Gutowski, who said she was “not familiar with the contents of the contract” that O’Brien and she had signed.
Eventually, police wanted to determine who wrote the contract, and through investigation determined the original was on a computer at O’Brien’s home. Police obtained a search warrant, which they executed on Nov. 13 along with two Vermont State Police troopers. They learned that O’Brien had written the contract, based on a template he had used at his previous superintendency.
According to police, at that point O’Brien said of the payment, “I didn’t authorize that at all, the board authorized that.” Police said they told O’Brien “that was a different conversation than we had last time to which he responded, ‘no it’s not.’”
Police then on Dec. 18 cited him into court for his appearance last week. The next step in the case is a status conference, set for 1 p.m. on April 11 in the courtroom.
O’Brien, reached late last week, said all comment had to come from Kallen.
Kallen on Friday wrote the crux of the case is “a dispute over an ambiguous clause in an employment agreement between himself and the ANWSU concerning whose responsibility it is to submit approval for reimbursement for unused vacation leave to the ANWSU Board.”
Reporter Andy Kirkaldy can be reached at [email protected].