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Donations to Saugus library are feared lost

Former worker charged in $800,000 theft

After Henry Merrifield died of a heart attack last February, his family asked that memorial donations be made to the Saugus Public Library, which had long suffered funding shortfalls.

“The library was his cause,’’ said Randy-Sue Abber, his companion for 30 years. “He was constantly down there, checking out books or ordering them from other libraries.’’

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Abber now is angry that $500 in donations made in Merrifield’s name was likely lost in an $800,000 theft, allegedly at the hands of a part-time library worker, over the last seven years.

Linda E. Duffy, a former administrative assistant at the library, was indicted on Dec. 7 by a federal grand jury, and charged with four counts of mail fraud, 10 counts of money-laundering, and one count of aggravated identity theft, according to the US attorney’s office. She is due to be arraigned on Tuesday in US District Court in Boston.

“She will enter a plea of not guilty,’’ said Frederick J. Riley, a Lynnfield lawyer representing Duffy.

Riley, a former Saugus library trustee who resigned to represent Duffy, declined further comment.

Duffy, 65, is alleged to have diverted fees for overdue books and videos, and charitable donations, including more than $450,000 from the GE Foundation, into an account she controlled at Eastern Bank. She used the money to pay the mortgage on her Saugus home, dental bills, car repairs, jewelry, hotel stays, and other personal expenses, according to the indictment.

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The alleged theft stunned Saugus, a town often in fiscal trouble. In 2007, the library was closed temporarily after residents rejected a trash fee to generate more revenue. After town funding slipped below state standards, the library lost its certification, as well as the chance to apply for state matching funds in 2008. Certification was restored a year later, after money was trimmed from other town departments for funding.

Merrifield, an elected Town Meeting member, was among those who led a public charge to restore library funding. On his morning shift at a convenience store, he lobbied customers buying coffee and newspapers.

“There was no question in our minds as to how to commemorate his life but to have donations made in his name to the library,’’ said Abber, who held a reception after Merrifield’s funeral in the library’s meeting room.

When she learned that donations in his memory were included in the $800,000, Abber said she felt “devastated to the point of nausea.’’ She urges anyone who made donations to contact the US attorney’s office about possible restitution.

“Please, please come forward,’’ she said. “If anyone made donations in Henry’s name, or anyone else’s,’’ she said, “please come forward. What happened is not right . . . I hurt for Henry.’’

A spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office in Boston said people may send an e-mail to Jessica Pooler, a victim witness advocate, at usama.victimassistance@usdoj.gov. “It’s still a little early to see what can be done,’’ said Christina Sterling, the spokeswoman. “[Duffy] still has not been arraigned.’’

If convicted, Duffy could be forced to sell her home and other personal possessions to pay back missing money, the indictment states. “Whatever the judge decides would be what the forfeiture amount would be,’’ Sterling said.

The indictment also alleges that Duffy faked donations as large as $50,000 to get matching funds from the GE Foundation, a charitable arm of General Electric Co., which has an aircraft engine plant in Lynn. Between 2004 and July of this year, the GE Foundation sent the library more than $450,000 in matching funds, most of which were sent in response to “bogus library donations,’’ the indictment states.

Richard Gorham, a spokesman for GE in Lynn, in an e-mail declined to comment, stating: “Our policy is not to comment on any ongoing criminal investigations or legal matters.’’

The library theft is the second time Duffy has been charged with financial wrongdoing. In 1992, she was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for defrauding an insurance company, the US attorney’s office said.

When she was hired, the town of Saugus did not conduct criminal background checks on applicants for employees, said John Vasapolli, the town counsel.

“We do the checks now and have for many years,’’ Vasapolli said. “But [in 1999] it wasn’t the policy.’’

Duffy was hired as a part-time clerk and became a full-time employee in 2004. As budget cuts forced the library to cut staff, Duffy assumed more responsibilities, including processing charitable donations, the indictment states. Since 2007, Duffy had again been a part-time employee, earning $18.54 per hour until she resigned in July amid a financial investigation by Saugus officials, according to the town’s personnel department.

The investigation started six months ago after the new library director was unable to get financial information from her, Vasapolli said.

Abber suspected something was amiss last spring. She said Duffy had suggested that donations for Merrifield be used to put a bench outside the library, inscribed with his name.

But whenever she asked for a list of donors so she could send thank-you notes, Duffy never produced a list.

“Every time I went in, she would say, ‘Oh, I’ll get you that,’ or ‘I don’t know where it is,’ ’’ Abber said. “After four or five months and there was still no bench, I suspected something was wrong.’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.

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