ANwSU, O’Brien settle embezzlement case

MIDDLEBURY — Former longtime Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Thomas O’Brien has returned disputed unused vacation pay to his former school district and written a letter of apology to the ANwSU board, and a felony embezzlement case against him has been dropped as part of a settlement of a legal case against him. 
Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster on July 28 filed in Addison County Superior Court’s Criminal Division a notice of dismissal of an embezzlement/official capacity charge against O’Brien. O’Brien had been accused of improperly ordering an ANwSU employee to pay him $4,423.28 of unused vacation compensation and to pay three other administrators in a similar manner.
Fenster confirmed last week that the dismissal of the case came as part of a settlement in which O’Brien agreed to return the money paid to him and apologize.
According to the original December allegations against O’Brien, to which he pleaded innocent in March, he authorized those payments despite clauses in his and their contracts that stated only the ANwSU board had the authority to order such payments.
O’Brien, a 68-year-old Orwell resident, had faced up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $1,000 if convicted. He did not return several phone calls last week seeking comment.
His attorney, Douglas Kallen of Burlington, was unavailable for comment last week. This winter, Kallen said in a statement to the Independent that O’Brien was “involved in a dispute over an ambiguous clause” in his ANwSU contract that Kallen called “a civil matter.”
Kallen also cited O’Brien’s 13 years of “outstanding service” to ANwSU. O’Brien was named by two organizations as Vermont Superintendent of the Year during his tenure and negotiated the first district-wide contracts for teachers and support personnel. He also oversaw three efforts to unify ANwSU under one-board governance. Two of those efforts passed on the first try, but were overturned when petitioned. On March 1, ANwSU voters backed such a plan overwhelmingly.
However, after O’Brien left ANwSU, officials found evidence of poor bookkeeping and record keeping in its central office, including a massive deficit in the Vergennes Union High School budget due to persistent underestimating of the true cost of funding special education at the school, and a consistent failure to file required reports about the use of state and federal funds. ANwSU board members were not pleased with the financial picture they discovered after he departed.
O’Brien returned all of the money paid to him in a check dated July 14. His letter, bearing the same date, was forwarded on Aug. 4 to the ANwSU board by the state’s attorney’s office victim’s advocate.
In the letter, O’Brien wrote its purpose was “to acknowledge my responsibility for the following: Improperly requesting payment for nine days of unused vacation leave and receiving payment for same.”
O’Brien also acknowledged his “failure to notify the (ANwSU) Board” about an April 2014 letter from a Department of Education official that “included the potential suspension of federal programs funding” and “the unintentional violation of the public trust created by those actions.”
Current ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning said O’Brien’s “public letter of apology” was read aloud at the ANwSU board’s Aug. 17 meeting by board chairman Bill Clark, who also announced the return of the money.
“Those two pieces were important to the board,” Canning said.
Canning said she and the board members are now pleased to focus on the beginning of a new school year.
“We’re very happy to put it behind us,” she said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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