WBUR News WBUR News

Support the news

How Police Union Embezzlement, Including A $83,000 Theft In Somerville, Affects Public Trust06:16
Download

Play
The Somerville Police Department, near Union Square in Somerville. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Somerville Police Department, near Union Square in Somerville. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In early March, after a quick, two-witness trial, Somerville police officer Shaun Clark was convicted of stealing more than $83,000 from the police union. He was the union's treasurer.

By a remote hearing a month later, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clark, 42, was sentenced to two years probation. He remains a Somerville police officer — on unpaid leave — as the city moves toward firing him.

Clark’s theft and conviction remained fairly quiet outside the police department. News of the theft made a local blog, which didn’t name a suspect. Clark's name was listed among the more than 100 grand jury indictments announced by the Middlesex district attorney’s office in May 2019, but the office’s release mentioned nothing about the scope of his theft or his position as a police officer.

The specifics of Clark’s crime came to light only recently when it was disclosed in records WBUR received from the Middlesex DA’s office. The records make up the office’s “Brady list” and include more than 100 current and former law enforcement officers who prosecutors believe may be unreliable witnesses in court because of their past conduct, or due to allegations they face.

Also tucked into the list were two disclosures about officers facing allegations of misconduct involving their respective police unions in Billerica and Burlington. Neither of the allegations — or the officers' departures — were previously made public.

As state lawmakers debate police reform legislation, and many Americans place greater scrutiny on officer misconduct, policing experts say thefts like Clark’s can affect a department’s reputation as much as an officer using excessive force or wrongfully arresting a person.

Policing relies on public trust, said John Kleinig, a professor emeritus at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who focuses on police ethics. Any crack in the armor, he says, is bad for all.

“Police ... have an enormous amount of power. They’re allowed to shoot people if necessary,” Kleinig said. “And if you're going to give people that kind of power, you really want to know that these are people you can trust through and through.”

Thefts like Clark’s aren’t rare. A database of publicly reported arrests of police officers shows at least 250 officers nationally were charged with embezzlement from 2005 to 2015.

Just last month, Methuen police officer Mark Whittaker pleaded guilty to stealing from the patrolmen’s union, in which he served as treasurer. He was sentenced to three years probation, ordered not to work in law enforcement and paid $82,718 in restitution to the union and an insurance company.

And last year, the former president of the Massachusetts State Police union and the group’s former lobbyist were charged in federal court with fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice in what prosecutors allege was a six-year kickback scheme.

Those cases were made very public — unlike Clark’s crimes. Lee Adler, a law and labor professor at Cornell University who has defended people in embezzlement cases and represented union firefighters, said it’s unusual that a theft of that size, especially by a police officer, would have remained under the radar.

“Eighty-thousand dollars is a considerable sum of money,” Adler said. “It’s noteworthy, and it’s surprising, that it wouldn’t make news even in a big metropolitan area like the Greater Boston area.”

"If you're going to give people that kind of power, you really want to know that these are people you can trust through and through.”

John Kleinig, police ethics expert

A spokesperson for DA Marian Ryan said there was not a specific decision made to not publicize the theft, and that the trial ended as the office was closing down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The spokesperson said she didn't realize the trial had concluded.

The city didn't make the theft public either. A spokesperson for the city of Somerville said the police department did not handle the criminal investigation, and the city immediately referred the case to the DA. The city said it would be up to the DA whether to publicize the crime and conviction. Somerville police chief David Fallon didn’t respond to a call seeking comment.

The city completed its own internal investigation into Clark on March 31, after the criminal trial, and it’s expected he will be fired. The spokesperson said it’s not the city’s practice to publicize when an employee is disciplined or fired.

Other Cases Kept Under Wraps

Clark’s theft led to an investigation and criminal charges. But in other cases involving allegations of union impropriety, suspect officers appeared to resign and avoid further investigation.

In Billerica, a police officer who was also the acting president of the local chapter of the union resigned from the department in 2018 after allegations of embezzlement from the local chapters of the New England Police Benevolent Association. The DA noted that while they weren’t aware of the exact amount embezzled, the officer later provided a cashier’s check to the union for $36,300. The officer was also, at the time, the subject of an unrelated internal investigation regarding inappropriate and harassing text messages sent to the estranged husband of a woman he was dating.

Those internal investigations ended without concrete findings when the officer left the department. There’s “no question” he would have been fired had he not resigned, Billerica police Chief Daniel Rosa told WBUR.

Rosa said the Middlesex DA's office was aware of the allegations. The officer was not criminally charged. The union was the victim and “there was not a willing victim in this particular case,” Rosa said. The union's executive director didn't respond to a call or email about the case.

The chief declined to say whether he thought the officer should have been charged.

“It certainly isn’t a good issue,” said Rosa, who has been chief for nearly 20 years. “Separating him from the department was our number one priority, and that happened.”

Six miles down 3A in Burlington, a police officer was investigated by the department in 2019 for alleged theft related to his duties with the local police union, the Burlington Police Patrolmen’s Association. He was placed on paid administrative leave in February 2019, and is no longer working for the department. The findings of the investigation are unclear.

Reached by phone, the president of the Burlington Police Patrolmen's Association said he didn't want to talk about the case, and referred WBUR to the police department. The police chief did not respond to a request for comment.

Attempts to reach the former officers in Burlington and Billerica weren't successful.

These quiet departures are a problem, policing experts said, arguing that in some cases, it allows officers to avoid responsibility for their actions and, sometimes, move on to other departments.

Philip Stinson, a former police officer and criminal defense attorney turned criminologist at Bowling Green State University who maintains a database of publicly reported police crime, called such scenarios the “officer shuffle.”

Rosa said generally, another department would call Billerica for a reference check before hiring one of his former officers, just as he does with job candidates. But he acknowledged there’s no guarantee that would happen.

The main police reform bill in debate at the State House centers in part around the formation of a statewide certification system for officers. Stinson pointed out that, in other states, oftentimes officers who resign avoid any kind of decertification.

“Police departments don't like to air their dirty laundry publicly,” he said. “And frankly, once they've convinced an officer to resign or actually involuntarily terminated an officer, it's out of sight, out of mind. They remove the problem officer and they really don't care where they go on to work.”

That’s an issue, Stinson said, because the officers, the chiefs and the system all can then escape accountability.

Kleinig, the retired police ethics professor, calls it the “blue wall of silence.”

“Police departments don't like to air their dirty laundry publicly ... They remove the problem officer and they really don't care where they go on to work.”

Philip Stinson, police crimes researcher

Clark’s Crimes In Somerville

Court records and internal affairs reports describe Clark’s misdeeds. Clark was accused of embezzling membership dues from the Somerville Police Employees Association for more than a year — from October 2017 to January 2019 — totaling $83,300.

Somerville police officer Shaun Clark at his swearing-in ceremony on May 22, 2014. (Courtesy Somerville Police Department via Facebook)
Somerville police officer Shaun Clark at his swearing-in ceremony on May 22, 2014. (Courtesy Somerville Police Department via Facebook)

His attorney, Timothy R. Flaherty, wrote in a sentencing memorandum that Clark’s gambling was to blame. Clark, who joined the force in 2014, sporadically gambled until 2017, Flaherty wrote, when his habit “spiraled.” By the fall of 2018, the officer was betting up to $10,000 a week.

That’s when Clark began siphoning off funds from the union to pay off his bookie and fund his sports betting and gambling at various casinos.

“The money he earned from his police employment was insufficient to cover his mounting gambling debts,” the defense attorney wrote. Clark earned $135,000 in 2018 and $161,000 in 2017, Somerville salary data shows.

Union officials discovered the account was short tens of thousands of dollars in January 2019, after a vendor didn’t receive a scheduled payment. They found the checking account was missing money, and at one point was down to less than $500.

The union president and vice president confronted Clark, who tried to say the missing money was for a golf tournament sponsorship. The next day, they reported the theft to the chief. Clark was indicted a month later.

Reached outside his Somerville home, Clark declined to comment.

“I haven’t even had a chance to talk to the SPD so I’m not going to comment about any of that stuff,” he told a WBUR reporter.

Clark initially asked for the case to be continued without a finding — a result that could have allowed him to avoid a felony conviction and to keep his job as a police officer with Somerville, or allowed him to secure another law enforcement job. He was ultimately convicted of the felony, and given two years probation. A restitution hearing is scheduled for this fall.

His attorney wrote in a sentencing memorandum that Clark already has paid back $68,800, “believing that to be the total amount of monies he embezzled.”

Somerville’s internal affairs investigator noted in March 2020, more than a year after the theft was discovered, that the police union hadn’t hired an auditing firm to figure out exactly how much money had been stolen.

The president of the Somerville Police Employees Association, Michael McGrath, declined to comment when approached by WBUR. McGrath himself was included in the Middlesex DA’s Brady list. He has been on paid leave from Somerville since October amid an investigation into allegations of excessive use of force during an arrest and untruthful statements made to investigators concerning the incident.

Clark’s defense attorney said during the trial that McGrath didn’t take the stand to testify against Clark because McGrath was “embroiled” in controversy with Somerville police and that internal investigation. Instead, the union’s vice president, Eduardo Soares, did. WBUR could not reach Soares for comment.

Flaherty, the defense attorney, said Clark hasn't gambled since Jan. 19, 2019, when he wagered on the AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. The day after the game, the theft was discovered. He wrote in the sentencing memorandum that Clark’s conduct “fell well below the standard expected of a sworn police officer and has rightly subjected him to public humiliation.”

But, Flaherty also tried to downplay the significance of the crime, adding that Clark is still well-liked by his fellow officers, “the putative victims of his crime."

“His crime involved union finances, and while reprehensible, did not involve a violation of the public trust or his sworn duty as a police officer,” he wrote.

Adler, the defense attorney and criminologist, called that argument “outrageous.”

“Yikes," Adler said. "I would never, ever, ever write words like that in connection with a public official — a treasurer of a police union in a community as important as Somerville — stealing money and say, that doesn't violate either the public trust or your duties as a police officer."

With reporting from WBUR's Walter Wuthmann

This segment aired on August 18, 2020.

Related:

Ally Jarmanning Twitter Digital Producer
Ally is a reporter who champions data and public records in the WBUR newsroom.

More…

Support the news