UPDATE: O'Connell to pay $23K fine

Dan O'Connell

DANVERS — In February 2015, Essex Tech Superintendent Dan O'Connell bought $1,200 worth of bathroom fixtures from Salem Plumbing for his home.

O'Connell was dissatisfied with the fixtures, so he emailed a proposal to the business: Replace them at no cost in exchange for Essex Tech "continu(ing) our business partnership."

"No bids accepted from (Salem) plumbing until my situation is resolved," he wrote.

Salem Plumbing proceeded to replace the $1,200 worth of fixtures in O'Connell's home, at no cost to him.

According to the State Ethics Commission, O'Connell's exchange with the business was only one example of him using his position for personal gain while serving as superintendent at North Shore Technical High School and Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical School from 2010 to 2015.

The commission announced Thursday that O'Connell admitted to multiple violations of the state's conflict-of-interest law to benefit himself and his son, a maintenance worker at the school. O'Connell agreed to pay a $23,000 civil penalty and waived his right to contest the commission's findings.

Former Essex Tech School Committee Chairwoman Melissa Teixeira said the ethics commission "has sent a strong message with a strong penalty."

"I'm glad this issue has been resolved — the school can move forward," she said. 

O'Connell could not be reached for comment.

O'Connell retired as superintendent in 2015 after the Essex Tech School Committee accused him of "gross misconduct" for taking nearly $90,000 in unauthorized payments.

The committee referred its report to the Essex District Attorney's Office and the State Ethics Commission. The DA's office declined to seek criminal charges, and the ethics commission would not comment publicly at the time.

But the agreement released Thursday said the commission began investigating the charges in December 2016. The commission concluded its investigation in May 2018, finding reasonable cause to believe that O'Connell violated conflict-of-interest laws. O'Connell agreed to the $23,000 fine last week.

In his agreement with the ethics commission, O'Connell admitted to several instances in which he broke the law, including two that involved his son. In 2012 and 2013, O'Connell approved pay raises for the custodial staff at North Shore Tech, including his son, without disclosing to the School Committee that he had determined his son's raise.

In 2015, with O'Connell and his son now at the new Essex Tech school, O'Connell put his son in charge of snow removal, despite the fact that he had less experience than other maintenance workers at the school. That position enabled his son to work 37 more hours of overtime than any other worker and earn $4,753 in overtime pay from January to March.

O'Connell also allowed his son to use a school vehicle for a private purpose.

In October 2014, O'Connell directed the Essex Tech business manager to reinstate a $20,000 stipend that he had received during the 15 months he served as superintendent of both North Shore Tech and Essex Tech while the new school was being built.

O'Connell stopped receiving the stipend in June 2014 when North Shore Tech closed. But four months later, he ordered the business manager to reinstate it retroactively, without authorization by the School Committee.

Another violation arose in 2015, after the former North Shore Tech campus was sold to private developers. The developers gave surplus bricks from the campus to O'Connell, who directed Essex Tech workers to load the bricks into a school-owned truck and bring them to his home in New Hampshire during school work hours.

In the dispute with Salem Plumbing, O'Connell turned down a bid by the company for an Essex Tech purchase, saying he would not accept any of the company's bids until his private dispute over the fixtures was resolved.

O'Connell is collecting an annual pension of $135,546, according to the MassOpenBooks. Public employees usually only lose their pensions for criminal misconduct.

The State Ethics Commission is charged with civilly enforcing the state's conflict-of-interest law. When at least three of the commission’s five members vote to find reasonable cause to believe a public employee has violated the law, they can authorize an investigation. The employee can enter into a "public disposition agreement" rather than exercising his right to a hearing.

Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@gloucestertimes.com

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