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Newton

Bills for police inquiries add up

Newton has racked up more than $170,000 in expenses related to the charges and countercharges that have flown back and forth in its Police Department since September 2011, when longtime secretary Jeanne Sweeney Mooney was accused of stealing cash and checks from the police station and placed on paid administrative leave.

Mooney, who was acquitted of a charge of larceny over $250 in May, has alleged that she was framed in retaliation for complaints she made about then-Police Chief Matthew Cummings. He was fired last fall, and Mooney in March filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking more than $1.1 million in damages.

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The costs the city has incurred include Mooney’s paid leave, and fees for investigations conducted by consultants, and outside legal assistance.

“Fortunately and unfortunately, this is the cost of justice in America,” said Newton’s chief financial officer, Maureen Lemieux. She said the city had to investigate the charges against Mooney, and follow the legal process.

“Is it a lot of money? Yes,” said Lemieux. “But should we all be thankful that this is how it works here? Yes.”

The city paid Mooney $114,421 during her nearly 21 months of paid administrative leave, which began on Sept. 26, 2011, and ended on June 10 , said Lemieux. Mooney was offered her job back, but is currently on sick leave, she said.

Newton has paid $26,956 for legal work by Boston law firm Sinsheimer & Associates related to Cummings’ employment status, according to records provided by the city comptroller and Lemieux, and faces a bill for $7,015 for arbitration with Cummings in his appeal over his termination.

‘These were serious charges, involving the office of the chief of police. The absolute most important thing was that we got it right.’

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The city has also spent $22,055 on three related investigations, one auditing the Police Department’s finances and the other two investigating the allegations against both Mooney and Cummings, according to Lemieux and records from the comptroller.

Another recently concluded investigation, into whether two police lieutenants associated with the case improperly disposed of documents, and that cleared both men of wrongdoing, said Lemieux, incurred a bill of $2,549 for the city.

A spokesman for Mayor Setti Warren said the mayor declined to comment on the costs associated with the police investigations, and said Lemieux was speaking for the city.

Alderman at Large Ted Hess-Mahan, an announced candidate for mayor, declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but when told of the amount the city has spent since the original allegations said the best thing for everyone would be to settle the lawsuit by Mooney.

“What I can say, based on my 20-plus years as a civil litigator, is the cost to litigate this case and ultimately settle it is not going to go down the longer the case drags on,” said Hess-Mahan. “I think it’s in everybody’s interest to get it resolved with an out-of-court settlement as quickly as possible.”

Lemieux declined to say whether the city has discussed settling, and said the costs borne by the city have been necessary for the pursuit of the truth.

“These were serious charges, involving the office of the chief of police. The absolute most important thing was that we got it right,” said Lemieux. “Cost is always a factor, however it was not the most important factor.”

Joshua Norman, interim head of the Newton Taxpayers Association, said it is disappointing that the city has to spend money to resolve problems on the local force.

“Unfortunately you’ve got this unprofessional behavior by the Newton Police Department that’s costing the taxpayers money that the taxpayers really shouldn’t have to be paying,’’ he said.

In September 2011, Mooney was placed on paid leave after being accused of stealing an envelope containing $660 in cash and destroying nearly $1,500 in checks and a schedule of payments related to fees collected by the department. She denied the allegations, and in May 2012 filed a demand with the city for $600,000, saying she had been framed in retaliation for complaints she made about Cummings, and that he had insulted and kicked her.

An investigation substantiated some of Mooney’s allegations, and Warren fired Cummings for “conduct unbecoming” in October.

Cummings has protested his firing, and is in arbitration with the city.

Bills paid to Sinsheimer & Associates account for about 84 percent of the city’s billings for outside legal services in the fiscal year that ended June 30, Lemieux said. She noted, however, that the city has drastically reduced its legal billing in recent years, from more than $320,000 in the 2010 fiscal year to just $14,400 two years later.

“We watch those dollars very, very closely,” she said. “That’s one area where we have saved a tremendous amount of money over the last couple of years. We don’t make these decisions lightly.”

None of the contracts for the investigators or Sinsheimer & Associates were put out for bid by the city, said Lemieux, in part because of a need to move quickly and because the city relies on recommendations by peers to decide on contracts that require specific areas of expertise.

Important, too, she said, was the need for investigators to be impartial.

Cost, she said, is always a concern, “but equally, and perhaps more important in this case, is that we got to the truth.”

Mooney’s federal suit names the city, Warren in his capacity as mayor, Cummings, Lieutenant Edward Aucoin, now retired, and former department employee Vincent Nguyen as defendants, alleging that they had violated her civil rights and illegally retaliated against her by filing “false criminal charges” against her for speaking out.

The city and the other defendants have denied the charges.

But Mooney’s lawyer said she has a good case.

“This is one of the most extreme emotional distress cases I’ve seen, and I’ve been practicing for 20 years in the employment realm,” said John Tocci. “This wasn’t someone who was fired from a job. This is someone whose employer was trying to wrongfully put her behind bars.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.
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