December 11, 2019
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‘Where did it go?’: Columbia Falls dispute over bank funds flares again

COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — A simmering dispute over questions about a mystery bank account erupted again during a meeting of the Board of Selectmen Monday night, but two out of the three selectmen washed their hands of the issue.

The dispute prompted numerous comments and questions from two divided camps of citizens and officials, and eventually pleas from citizens for an end to the discord.

Notwithstanding a vote by the two selectmen to end discussion on the matter, there are still unanswered questions.

Resident John Tibbetts started the discussion by telling the selectmen that the response by Machias Savings Bank to the board’s recent inquiry did not answer the question he raised at a board meeting last month.

At the March 10 session, Tibbetts informed selectmen that, while temporarily serving as treasurer in 2010, he received an account statement in the mail from Machias Savings Bank. The statement indicated that the account belonged to the town’s recreation committee and held about $7,000 to $10,000, according to Tibbetts. He told the board that when he took the statement to then-town clerk Muriel Smith to ask about the funds, she snatched the statement out of his hand and told him it was none of his business.

Smith has since moved out of Columbia Falls and lives in Florida, and she has not responded to emails from the Bangor Daily News requesting comment, including another sent this week.

After the revelation by Tibbetts last month, the selectman contacted the bank, asking it to provide account statements for any active or closed accounts in the name of the town’s recreation committee for the years 2009 until the present. The name on the account would have been Smith’s, the selectmen indicated in their letter.

Bank vice president Kelli Emery responded in a letter dated March 11, that the bank found one savings account for the committee that was closed in 2013. Emery provided copies of account statements from 2002-2013.

The account to which Emery referred was the same as one that town officials had provided information about earlier in response to a request by resident Pam Look under the Freedom of Access Act. She is the wife of Selectman Jay Look.

In her letter, Emery also brought to the attention of the selectmen the last two withdrawals from the account, both to town treasurer Lenora Weaver. One was for $1,112.42 in cash on March 13, 2012. The amount was identical to a deposit made a little over two weeks earlier, the passbook records show.

The other withdrawal was for $678.24 to purchase a bank check payable to RBS, which was not identified; although Emery’s letter indicated it was made on March 16, 2013, the passbook record indicates it was March 16, 2012.

When asked Tuesday why she singled out the two withdrawals in her letter to the selectmen, Emery referred questions to other bank officials. However, executive vice president Don Reynolds said bank officials would not discuss the letter. “I can’t comment on anything related to any customer activity,” said Reynolds, who indicated he was not familiar with the contents of the letter.

Tibbetts noted that the bank’s response did not address questions about the bank statement he found in 2010. He suggested that the selectmen had a second letter from the bank that may have shed light on it, but board chairman Alan Grant said the selectmen received only one letter from the bank.

Tibbetts also raised questions about the cash withdrawal exceeding $1,000. “Where did it go?” he asked. “How was it used?”

“I can’t answer that because I didn’t withdraw it,” Grant said.

Weaver, who was sitting in the audience, was silent. She participated in an executive session meeting of the board recently when it apparently discussed the bank’s response.

Weaver was reached Tuesday by phone at her home and asked why she withdrew $1,112.42 in cash from the account. She hung up, and she did not return a voicemail repeating the question and asking what became of the funds.

Peter Doak, who served on the recreation committee during the 1990s, angrily stood up during Monday’s meeting and defended the recreation committee. He recounted the work of the panel and said it carefully watched over the funds it raised. “Every penny was accounted for,” he declared.

“And I resent that … anybody’s integrity is being questioned,” said Doak.

“I am tired of coming up here and listening to this [expletive],” added Doak.

However, resident Grace Falzarano said that the questions that have been raised were not aimed at Doak or the work of the committee. “No one is questioning your integrity,” she said, a comment echoed by Tibbetts. The questions he has raised are about matters that occurred long after Doak’s tenure, Tibbetts noted.

Look also joined in the discussion, pointing out that the financial records she sought for the recreation committee were for the years when Doak was not on the committee.

“I think it’s time to put this issue to bed,” Selectman Todd Emerson said. “We’ve been working in reverse,” he said, a remark that drew a smattering of applause. “I don’t want to go backward any more.”

Current Town Clerk Nancy Bailey suggested that Tibbetts and Selectman Look were making accusations against town officials, but Tibbetts said he was doing nothing more than asking questions. “I have not heard anybody accuse someone else of doing something wrong,” he said.

“Why am I even here,” an agitated Jay Look asked, if he can’t ask questions about the town’s finances.

“Grow up,” responded an unidentified member of the audience.

Tony Santiago also urged town officials and those gathered to “put it behind us,” adding, “We’re wasting way too my hours.”

Tibbetts was undaunted. “Where did it go?” he asked, referring to Weaver’s cash withdrawal. “Someone obviously knows where it went. Why can’t they tell us?”

“Please, let’s forget it,” said Robin Santiago, who decried how the questions have divided residents of the community into two camps.”We just need some peace in our town,” she said.

“If it was $40,000, say, you people would all be singing a different tune,” said Jay Look.

For the second time, Bailey indicated she knew about the bank account that Tibbetts discovered in 2010, but she did not respond when Tibbetts asked her about it on Monday night.

When asked about it by the BDN on Tuesday, Bailey, Weaver’s daughter, said she couldn’t really be sure about the bank statement Tibbetts found. Besides, she added, “They don’t really believe anything I tell them.”

When asked again if she would like to share what she knows about the bank account, Bailey said, “Not right at the moment. I really have to think about it. I’m not really positive.”

As they did following the executive session at their last meeting on April 15, Grant and Emerson cast votes together Monday night intended to end discussion on the matter; Look again abstained.


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