Federal prosecutors are intensifying their criminal investigation into whether former Methuen police chief Joseph Solomon and the former leader of a police union conspired to defraud the city, according to two people who have met recently with prosecutors.
Solomon, one of the nation’s highest paid law enforcement officials, has been under investigation for his alleged role in hiding the true cost of a union contract that would have paid senior officers more than $432,000 a year and indirectly raised Solomon’s pay beyond the $326,707 he made in 2019.
The US Attorney’s investigation appeared to pick up following a scathing ruling in January from an arbitrator who was asked whether the city had to abide by the contract. Arbitrator Loretta T. Attardo concluded that Solomon and then superior officers’ union president Greg Gallant duped the city council into ratifying a contract that contained costly but concealed pay raises.
Prosecutors have called at least three witnesses to testify before a grand jury since Attardo’s report, quizzing them about the union contract and whether Solomon and Gallant knowingly withheld information about how much the deal would pay senior officers.
One witness had the impression that prosecutors were nearing the end of their probe.
“They seemed to be wrapping up and tying up loose ends,” said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the confidential grand jury proceedings. “I got the sense they were getting close.”
Mayor Neil Perry and city councilors would not comment on the probe at the direction of the city’s lawyer, Kenneth Rossetti.
US Attorney’s office spokeswoman Christina Sterling declined comment. Gallant and Solomon did not respond to requests for comment.
Solomon, who retired last year after running the Methuen police department for nearly two decades, has long insisted he did nothing wrong, but his career ended under a cloud: he had been placed on administrative lead after a state inspector general’s report concluded that he helped draft the 2017 union contract that would have given him and his allies huge raises. The city had not implemented the contract pending the outcome of the arbitration.
Gallant was placed on administrative leave at the same time as Solomon. He is still on leave, city officials said, and receiving his regular pay -- more than $2,700 a week, according to records. He is also earning credit toward his pension, officials said.
In January, Attardo ruled that Methuen didn’t have to abide by the union contract because it contained provisions that officials were unaware of.
She said that only Gallant and Solomon understood the meaning of the language Gallant added to the contract that built in rapidly escalating pay increases for senior officers.
“There is no evidence that these multiple layered additions to base pay were ever discussed in negotiations,” Attardo wrote. “Nor were they brought to the attention of either (then) Mayor Zanni or the [City] Council after Captain Gallant added them to the final contract.”
Attardo made clear that since city officials didn’t understand what the contract meant, there could be no binding agreement. The mayor and councilors all said they were misled into believing the contract provided for pay increases of zero in the first year, followed by 2 percent increases in years two and three.
If investigators find Solomon, Gallant, or others conspired to conceal the true cost of the contract, they could be charged with mail or wire fraud, according to a former federal prosecutor.
Assistant US Attorney Neil Gallagher, the prosecutor leading the probe, has questioned current and former officials about how the contract came to be approved by the mayor and the city council -- and whether Gallant and Solomon intentionally hid the facts, several people told the Globe.
Gallagher has also asked whether the dramatic pay increases were inserted into the contract after it had been signed by Zanni and without his knowledge.
One of the recent witnesses said the prosecutors’ primary “focus was on the contract.”
E-mails reviewed by the Globe suggest that Gallant knew about the enormous pay hikes and was pleased at their inclusion in the contract.
In an e-mail to a union lawyer in August 2017 before the contract was approved, Gallant described the “great, great increases, and it all compounds.”
The lawyer, Gary Nolan, responded: “you covered all bases Greg, nice work. Hopefully they don’t have calculators at the meeting,” referring to the City Council. “Good luck.”
In early September, Solomon e-mailed the then-head of a second Methuen police union, David Gardner, to suggest the patrol officers Gardner represents obtain a contract including the same inflated base pay as the superiors’ contract. The language would have increased Solomon’s own salary, which was tied to the pay of the highest paid patrol officer.
It was only when a new mayor, James Jajuga, took office in 2018, that officials found out that the approved contract was way more generous than city officials had thought.
Jajuga told the Globe that the mayor of Haverhill called to tell him his police were looking for a contract as generous as Methuen’s.
“I said, ‘That’s strange,’ " Jajuga recalled. “A day or two later (the mayor of Haverhill) called me back and said “You’re in trouble. You got a problem. You better have your fiscal people look at this.”
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.