August 24, 2008
Eagle Tribune

ATKINSON, N.H. — Police Chief Philip Consentino may be a little bruised, but he has survived the latest in a round of attacks, this one focused on his handling of various police donation accounts.

A 40-year veteran of the Atkinson Police Department, a former three-term selectman and the director of elderly affairs for the town, Consentino has long drawn criticism for a perceived free-wheeling approach to governance and has been accused of using his authority to stifle detractors.

But he has his supporters, too, chief among them senior citizens who have benefited from his single-minded goal of taking care of older residents who are struggling with finances or health care issues.

In his role as elderly affairs director, Consentino has seen to it that someone who needs a wheelchair ramp gets one. Seniors who need a ride to a doctor’s appointment in Boston only need call Consentino and they will get there. An older resident intimidated or embarrassed by the thought of applying for welfare can call the chief and get the money necessary to keep the lights on or the furnace running.

And Consentino says he provides that help willingly — and legally.

Detractors claim Consentino has had too much control over too many accounts for too long. Some residents filed complaints with the Charitable Trusts Unit of the attorney general’s office. That office conducted a three-month “inquiry” into the questions raised and summarized its findings in a letter Aug. 5 to selectmen and Consentino.

The letter outlined three primary “challenges” the state found with regard to Consentino’s dual role as police chief and elderly affairs director and the oversight of police donation accounts: “governance, transparency and accountability.”

While acknowledging the benefits older residents have reaped over the 14 years the town has had a director of elderly affairs, the state said, “It is our opinion the current method of administering these funds is not in compliance with New Hampshire law and must therefore be brought into compliance.”

Those findings sparked a fire storm of criticism against Consentino on an Atkinson blog and in the comment section on The Eagle-Tribune’s Web site. Many of those who posted comments called for Consentino’s removal and applauded those critics who question his tactics and demeanor.

But those critics are, and have been, mostly anonymous. In fact, the anonymity of those residents who registered complaints with the attorney general’s office is protected under the state’s Whistleblowers’ Protection Act.

While Consentino has said the whole brouhaha is the work of one individual, the state, in its letter, spoke of “numerous inquiries from individuals and the press.”

Terry Knowles of the Charitable Trusts Unit addressed five accounts: the Atkinson Police Department Equipment Fund, the Senior Donation Fund, the Life Is Not Done Group, the DARE Fund and the Police Fund.

But Consentino countered there were just three accounts: the Atkinson Police Department’s Donation/Equipment Fund, the DARE Fund and the Special Senior Fund.

He said in a letter of response to the state and in an interview last week that the DARE Fund had a balance of $33, the Special Senior Fund just $30 and the donation/equipment fund $19,700. He said Life Is Not Done is an individual benefactor who calls him and asks where there’s an unmet need and fills it. The Police Fund does not exist, according to Consentino.

He said Knowles agreed Life Is Not Done is not subject to state law. Several requests to Knowles for verification of that were not answered.

Tomorrow night, Consentino said, he will appear before selectmen and ask them to authorize closing the DARE Fund and the Senior Fund. He also will ask them to authorize transferring the $19,700 in the donation/equipment fund to a new nonprofit organization formed last week, the Atkinson Police Charitable Fund.

Knowles acknowledged Thursday that Consentino and others traveled to her office in Concord on Wednesday and registered that new group there and with the secretary of state’s office as a nonprofit charitable organization.

That was one of two solutions Knowles suggested: Put control of the funds under the Trustees of the Trust Funds or form a nonprofit organization. Consentino opted for the latter.

“That resolved all questions regarding these accounts,” Consentino said Thursday. “We have complied with everything she has requested.”

There’s a heavy police presence on the new group’s board of directors: Consentino and police Officers William Anderson, Roger Culliford, Richard Magoon and Robert Neill.

The bulk of the money is raised through an annual solicitation letter, previously written on police letterhead. Consentino said that letter will now be sent out by the new nonprofit group. He estimated annual donations total between $9,000 and $14,000, expenditures between $6,000 and $7,000.

The expenditures go for a variety of things, ranging from an estimated 1,300 birthday cards to specialized wheelchairs, walkers and flower arrangements for funerals. Consentino said elderly affairs budgets about $24,000 a year for senior transport. But, he is quick to point out, repairs to cruisers, GPS units and the like are paid for through the donation account.

Since being appointed elderly affairs director some 14 years ago, Consentino said, he has never been paid a penny for his work. He estimated he donates 15 to 20 hours a week to that program.

He is a part-time chief, limited to 25 hours a week in that role. He said he is the lowest-paid member of the Police Department, with an annual salary of approximately $21,000. He said he refused a raise this year and has turned down longevity pay as well.

“There is nobody more aboveboard than I am,” he said.

Consentino is a big man, and he casts a big shadow over this bedroom community of some 6,600 residents. And there are those residents who believe that shadow is too large, his control too great.

The state, too, expressed concern over Consentino’s dual roles as police chief and elderly affairs director. In her letter Knowles wrote, “It is difficult to ascertain where the office of police chief begins and the officer of director of elderly affairs ends and vice versa.”

She recommended selectmen study the elderly affairs position and, if they choose to retain it, draft guidelines for appointment to the job and its responsibilities, and make clear the separation between that job and that of police chief.

Several inquiries to Knowles, asking whether she would be comfortable with Consentino remaining in both positions, were not answered.

However, Consentino said Thursday that once Knowles learned he was not paid as director of elderly affairs, she had no problem with his dual roles.

“As long as there are separate budgets, she seems perfectly happy with that,” he said. “All agencies seem to be happy.”

The question remains whether Consentino’s critics will be happy with the resolution to the latest dispute.

“It’s terrible people think we’re hiding money all over the place with all these special accounts. Hopefully, we can put it behind us and move forward,” he said. “It’s a shame it had to come to this, but that’s life.”