In fall 2007, Joseph Cosentino was getting tired of his day job.
An assistant to the clerk magistrate in Taunton, he said the position was wearing on him and his car. Though he loved working in the courthouse, he said, the drives between Taunton and his home in Dartmouth, as well as between courthouses in Eastham and Seekonk, were getting to be too much. He was ready for a change.
So when his friend of 30 years, John George Jr., offered to get him a job as the administrator of SRTA, a position that would come with a $25,000 pay raise and a work vehicle with gas and maintenance included, it didn’t take long for Cosentino to accept, he said.
George was the owner of the Union Street Bus Company and had held the contract to run SRTA’s bus services for more than 20 years.
“He said to me, ‘Look, I’ve done this for 20 years without interference and we are best friends, there’s no reason why we can’t work well together,'” Cosentino recalled this week. “We were like brothers.”
Though it started amicably, relations between Cosentino and George would soon sour. Cosentino said he became increasingly aware of “financial deficiencies” at USBC, telling George that he had to comply with federal regulations. When George had enough of the criticism, Cosentino said, George directed the Southeast Regional Transit Authority’s advisory board to put Cosentino on a leave of absence for the last four months of his contract.
George was indicted this month on charges of embezzling federal funds. George has referred all comments on the charges to his attorney, Thomas Kiley. Kiley declined to comment for this article.
SRTA documents and advisory board members from the time paint a slightly more complicated picture of the 30-year friendship that disintegrated. They say Cosentino was difficult to work with and not competent to manage a transportation authority.
HOW HE GOT THE JOB
Cosentino became a lawyer in 1971, working at a city law firm before branching out in his own practice in 1980. In March of 1997, he signed on to be a clerk magistrate.
He was also active in Dartmouth government. It was as chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals in the mid-1970s that he became fast friends with George, who was then a Planning Board liaison to the zoning board.
The two were close, eating dinner together with their significant others at least every other week, and taking vacations together, Cosentino said. When George decided to run for Dartmouth selectman and then state representative, Cosentino was beside him, managing the campaigns.
In 2007, Cosentino didn’t have much experience with transportation. He had sat on SRTA’s advisory board for 17 years but knew that didn’t count for much, he said. But when George came to him worried about who would replace long-time administrator Lou Pettine, Cosentino said he ended up accepting both because of the job’s benefits and because of “pressure” from George to apply.
Including Cosentino, there were four finalists for the spot, including an employee of the Federal Transit Administration who wanted to bring wireless internet to the buses, according to advisory board meeting minutes from the time.
“(George) was afraid that if that individual became administrator that things would change,” Cosentino said. “He didn’t say how they would change, but just that it would make his life miserable.”
Later, in a wrongful termination lawsuit against SRTA, Cosentino would allege that George had told him “that he could arrange Cosentino’s selection as SRTA Administrator, with himself ‘delivering’ the New Bedford Mayor’s (Scott Lang) and with (SRTA attorney Arthur Frank) arranging to obtain the Fall River (interim) Mayor’s (Bill Whitty) vote.”
This week, former mayor Lang denied the allegation, saying he told Cosentino and George that they would have to go through “an open search process.”
Attorney Frank put it differently, saying, neither Lang nor interim Fall River Mayor Bill Whitty “had a preference.”
“The board knew (Cosentino), thought he was a great guy, and George said, ‘Yeah, I can work with my friend,” Frank said.
Whitty could not be reached for comment.
In the end, Cosentino got the position, with both mayors voting in his favor.
Cosentino started his job in January 2008. That summer, he said, he decided to start learning about federal and state regulations governing transit authorities.
As part of the process he began going to USBC’s offices every Friday, he said, to review receipts for the week. What he found was not always compliant with the regulations, he said.
For example, one time Cosentino said he saw a receipt from 2007 when George had used SRTA funds to pay for flowers, and told George not to do it again. A few months later, Cosentino said, he saw another receipt for flowers. On other occasions, he found bills for computer equipment and cell phones being paid for with SRTA funds.
“I would always tell him, ‘If it’s black and white in the regulation, you have to follow it. If it is grey, then your interpretation is as good as anyone else’s,'” Cosentino said.
Around that time, Cosentino said he started attending federal seminars on procurements and finances, causing him further concern about USBC’s practices.
“They said the administrator bears the responsibility of the operating company,” he said of a seminar he attended in 2009. “If the operator isn’t complying, it falls on the administrator, which was me. I started getting very concerned.”
Though Cosentino’s worries were mounting, he didn’t tell the SRTA advisory board about them.
“I was always approaching George, and it was always in a very ginger fashion because I wanted to remain friend brothers with him,” he said. “I thought, you know, at some point he would wake up and fix what he was doing if I just kept telling him. Of course, that didn’t work out.”
PUT ON LEAVE
Things came to a head in summer 2010, when George’s contract with SRTA came up for renewal.
According to Cosentino and his wrongful termination lawsuit, George was unhappy when Cosentino decided to advertise a request for bids on the contract in national publications as well as local ones. Cosentino also posted the request on SRTA’s website, which caught the attention of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
It turned out, Cosentino said, that the request for proposals was outdated. It made having the lowest bid count for just 12.5 percent of what the board should consider when picking an operator. The state said having the lowest bid should count for 25 percent, giving cheaper bids the advantage over more expensive ones. Such a change could allow George to be out-bid on the contract, Cosentino said.
Trying to follow the state’s instructions got him in trouble with George, according to the suit.
On Aug. 26, 2010, Frank went to Cosentino to tell him he had lost support of both mayors and would not be rehired when his contract expired in January.
Frank, according to the suit, told Cosentino to leave the building immediately, just hours before a meeting to change the request for bids was to be held with Cosentino presiding. Cosentino refused, staying for the meeting.
That same day, Cosentino received a letter from the board saying they had scheduled a hearing for Sept. 15 about whether to put him on administrative leave.
In the letter, the board wrote that there were “deficiencies” in Cosentino’s job performance, including “interference with the management team of SRTA’s operator Union Street Bus Company;” creation of a hostile work environment for SRTA and USBC employees; and “failure to competently” carry out the day-to-day duties of his job.
It was not the first time Cosentino had been accused of hostility. In 2004, the Dartmouth Board of Selectmen had removed him as chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals for treating residents “horribly.”
Cosentino said his removal from the zoning board was led by allies of a candidate for state representative, Roger L. Tougas, who he had helped George beat in 1989. Tougas died in 2011.
“When you are chairman, you don’t want to go off on tangents, you have to be strict,” he said.
When Cosentino heard the board was trying to remove him in August 2010, he went directly to George on his farm to talk it out. A letter from George’s attorney to Frank from the time describes the Aug. 26, 2010, exchange as “hostile.”
Cosentino, according to the letter, told George, “I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure you don’t get your contract.”
“I’ll take care of you,” Cosentino said. “You’re done, but you don’t know it yet.”
This week Cosentino did not deny that account, adding that he remembers slamming the door on his way out of George’s house, overcome with a feeling of betrayal.
“I was very upset that he would do this to me,” Cosentino said.
For Cosentino, that was the last straw. He decided not to turn a blind eye to George’s practices and, in an effort to keep his job, he wrote to the SRTA advisory board on Sept. 14, 2010.
The letter recounts his farm exchange with George and alerts the SRTA board for the first time about Cosentino’s concerns about George not following federal regulations.
“John told me that I was being too hard on him at SRTA,” Cosentino wrote. “I told him that he had to follow the regulatory requirement and that if the authority found that he was not following the requirements of the FTA, he might not be awarded the operator contract under the upcoming (request for proposals). He did not deny that he was behind the effort to remove me from office.”
The next day, the board voted to place Cosentino on administrative leave for the remainder of his contract.
Former Mayor Lang said this week that he had no personal dealings with Cosentino and no problems with his performance or hostility, but that Mayor William Flanagan and Frank had felt strongly that Cosentino’s contract should not be renewed.
“I asked if there was an underlying issue, and they felt that he was not performing in a manner that was appropriate,” Lang said.
Flanagan did not respond to three requests for comment.
Frank said that Flanagan was unhappy with Cosentino’s work. He said that the letter claiming Cosentino had been hostile toward George was the impetus for putting him on leave before his contract was finished.
Jean Fox, who was on the SRTA board when it hired Cosentino but not when it let him go, said she had “never found him difficult to work with.”
Any issues that the board had with his competence, Fox said, she attributed to the low staffing of SRTA, which had no financial officer or grants manager at the time.
Cosentino sued SRTA in 2010 shortly after he was fired and the suit was dismissed in May 2011.
In August 2011, Cosentino filed a second suit against both SRTA and George, which was dismissed in May 2014 by an agreement of the parties involved.
SRTA and George ultimately settled the case, paying Cosentino $185,000 and $10,000 respectively, according to Cosentino’s attorney Philip Beauregard.
There is no record of the settlement, however, in the suit’s case file at Taunton Superior Court. Richard L. Burpee, SRTA’s attorney for the case, said the settlement contains a confidentiality agreement. George’s attorney, James F. McGrail, could not be reached for comment.
Many of the allegations against George in that lawsuit are echoed in the federal indictment of George that came down this month.
Though he acknowledges his concerns from 2008 through 2010 mirror allegations in the indictment, Cosentino said he does not feel “vindicated.”
“I do think that whatever happened could have been averted if he had not refused to comply and listen to me,” Cosentino said. “On one hand, I knew someone would find out and have to act at some point, and I’m glad he is being held accountable. But this was the loss of 30 years of friendship for me. I don’t wish John anything bad.”
Follow Ariel Wittenberg on Twitter @awittenberg_SCT
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