WESTPORT — Although the prosecutor thought jail time was deserved, former Westport Highway Department Surveyor Harold “Jack” Sisson was instead sentenced Friday to two years of probation, 40 hours of community service and a no-trespass order at the town highway yard.
That sentence, delivered in Fall River District Court by Judge Julieann Hernon, came a day after a jury found Mr. Sisson guilty of felony larceny over $250 for trading in a town-owned Cub Cadet lawn tractor and its attachments and then arranging for that tractor to be given to his Highway Department mechanic, John Kennedy.
The crime and Mr. Sisson’s record warranted prison time, Mr. Callihane said.“This is a clear case of public corruption,” the DA said. An elected official abused his position to deprive the town of its own property and to give that that tractor “to a friend, colleague and subordinate.”
Although Mr. Sisson had argued that the used tractor was worth little and no longer needed, Mr. Callihane said that, with attachments, it was worth over $2,000 — a significant piece of property.”
And there were other items taken, the DA said, things brought up in pre-trial but not brought up in trial, that should figure into sentencing.
By entering into an invalid contract with 146 Supply Center (the Massachusetts company to which Mr. Sisson sent the items), he effectively cost the town $10,000, Mr. Callihane said, at a time that towns are struggling to make ends meet.
What’s more, Mr. Sisson had a record of private disposal of public property, one that former Town Administrator Jack Healey had tried to deal with, Mr. Callihane said.
“One of (Mr. Healey’s) first orders of business was to sit down with the defendant” and try to correct the problem, the DA said.
“(Mr. Sisson) chose to ignore that and run his deportment as a fiefdom … (and) engage in back room deals … under the cover of darkness.”
Mr. Sisson accepts the jury’s decision, said his attorney Emile Morad, but jail time would be excessive.
Mr. Sisson is 60 years old, worked for the town for 22 years and, while he may not have followed the proper procedures this time, always acted for the benefit of the town.
“He never tried to hide what he did” from the Police Department, Mr. Morad said.. “He has already lost his job” his employee pension has been held up and may become an issue … Jail would not be a proper consequence.”
After the verdict was delivered, Westport Detective Jeff Majewski said that, jail time or not, the jury’s guilty verdict on the felony count delivers a strong message that Mr. Sisson’s dealings had been criminal in nature.
“It was a real team effort” among detectives and the District Attorney’s office, he said, in a case that was more about the principles involved than the dollar amount.
“Some people say, ‘Why go to all this trouble over'” over a small amount of money? This was really about the public trust, he said, adding that the dollar value of the equipment was not insignificant. That Cub Cadet “was not just a lawn tractor. It was a very expensive, high end machine … with expensive attachments including trailer, aerator, roller, aluminum ramps and more.
He added that it was indicative of how seriously the state took the matter that it assigned one of its top prosecutors to the case for the duration.
The testimony of present town Highway Surveyor Chris Gonsalves was considered critical by both defense and prosecution.
Questioned by Mr. Morad, Mr. Gonsalves during the trial called Mr. Sisson(his former supervisor) “a great person, a great man.”
But he also testified that he had alerted police about his concerns for the way items were being removed from the Highway Department.
“Gonsalves was actually the twist in the case. He was the one who initially reported the theft to police,” Det. Majewski said.
In fact, on the October, 2012, day Mr. Gonsalves called police, officers went out and found another truck being loaded with town equipment, Det. Majewski said.
The tractor and other town-owned equipment were found by investigators outside Mr. Kennedy’s Westport Forge Road residence.
Mr. Kennedy subsequently admitted to the facts of the case, was placed on probation and resigned from his Westport job, Both he and Mr. Sisson still face a charge of conspiracy in the case which, it it gets to trial, is scheduled be heard in September.
Mr. Morad told the jury that, while Mr. Sisson may not always have abided by the letter of the bidding rules, he never benefitted personally from the transactions and had the town’s best financial interests at heart. Mr. Sisson repeatedly said his department actually saved Westport taxpayers many thousands of dollars through its frugal ways and that he was merely finding useful ways to dispose of unneeded items that were lying around the highway yard.
It was “nothing new,” Mr. Morad said, just the way business had been done in town for years.
But the DA said Mr. Sisson had repeatedly been warned to cease doing business that way and pointed to a 2011 report by the state Auditor General’s office that was highly critical of state Highway Department practices that included ignoring bidding rules, improperly disposing of public property and using town equipment and employees for work on private property, including that of a former member of the Board of Selectmen.
That probe had been sought by former Town Administrator Michael Coughlin. Its conclusions were sent to the Bristol County District Attorney’s office which took no action, leaving that to Westport Police.
Since Mr. Sisson’s arrest, Westport voters, in two separate votes, decided to change the highway surveyor job from an elected to an appointed post. Mr. Gonsalves, who had served as interim surveyor after the arrest, has since become the first appointed highway surveyor.