EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 15, 2013

Methuen school janitor charged with embezzling loses bid to keep her job

By Douglas Moser

---- — METHUEN — The former school custodian convicted of embezzling thousands of dollars from her union had her termination appeal dismissed by the state Civil Service Commission.

Beth A. Reuter, 49, was fired after she was convicted in February of larceny greater than $250 by a single scheme and ordered to serve 30 days of a one-year sentence in jail. Superintendent Judith Scannell fired her following a hearing at jail in March, and Reuter appealed.

In her appeal, Reuter argued that an agreement she signed with Scannell in November 2011, which brought her back to work after she was arrested for embezzling the money, protected her from any further punishment.

But the commission dismissed that reasoning in its June 27 decision.

“Nothing in this plain language can be fairly construed to mean that MPS waived its right to take action against Ms. Reuter should she eventually be convicted of a crime or to terminate her in exercise of the MPS’s sound discretion in that event,” the decision said. “If that had been the intent, the parties could easily have so stated in plain and unambiguous language.”

The commission also cited state law saying a person may not be employed by a school system within a year of serving jail time, unless the school system agrees to start or continue employment. Being ineligible for employment for one year is just cause grounds for termination, the commission wrote.

“It was the right decision, definitely,” Mayor Stephen Zanni said.

Michael Hogan, Reuter’s attorney, did not return a message seeking comment. Scannell is out of the office this week.

Reuter was convicted of a felony count of larceny of property greater than $250 in value by a single scheme on Feb. 13 in a jury trial in Lawrence District Court. She was sentenced to one year in jail, with 30 days to serve and the remainder suspended for three years.

Her termination hearing was scheduled to be held at Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Framingham on March 1, but was moved to the Essex County Sheriff’s Office and held on March 5, according to the decision.

The School Department fired her March 7. Reuter appealed her termination on March 15.

Scannell fired Reuter on May 26, 2011, after the original criminal complaints were filed in district court, and Reuter appealed to the Civil Service Commission. Reuter and the School Department signed a settlement agreement in November 2011 that brought her back to work, at a lower base wage that totaled $43,222.40 per year. Six months later, on May 27, 2012, her salary was bumped back up to $62,905, the rate she was paid before she was fired, according to School Department records.

Civil Service did not issue any ruling in that case, and Reuter withdrew her complaint as part of the agreement.

Last year, Scannell released a copy of the settlement agreement last summer, but key terms of the agreement were redacted. A request to the School Department for an unredacted copy of the agreement was denied.

An unredacted copy of the agreement provided by the Civil Service Commission on Wednesday showed that the School Department and Reuter agreed that she would come back to work with a 30-day unpaid suspension and a one-year demotion to junior custodian. She was reassigned as a senior custodian on May 27, 2012.

An officer in the Methuen Custodial Association reviewed account records in 2011 and discovered Reuter and Patrick Winn, a former custodian at Methuen schools and a one-time secretary/treasurer, had written checks to themselves totaling tens of thousands of dollars. In court in February, prosecutors accused Reuter of writing more than a dozen checks to herself from the union’s bank account amounting to $5,815 over the course of about 18 months in 2006 and 2007. The district attorney’s office believed Reuter stole much more over a longer period of time, but the Methuen Police Department only charged her for actions during that time frame.

In 2007, Reuter was charged after trying to buy cocaine in a Home Depot parking lot with her children in the car. The district court judge said in court in February that Hogan had suggested Reuter took the money to satisfy a drug habit.

Winn was charged with stealing $22,400 from the union and pleaded guilty to a single felony larceny charge in September. He was sentenced to one year of probation.

Methuen police arrested Winn in March 2009 on gambling charges after two men said they placed bets of thousands of dollars on sports with him. He admitted to sufficient facts for one of the charges, and his case was continued the case without a finding, according to court documents.

Winn resigned in June 2012.

Follow Douglas Moser on Twitter @EagleEyeMoser. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com.