LOWELL -- The city spent at least $158,479 in the last six fiscal years to investigate city employees, though in some cases invoices listed no subject or had the subject of the investigation blacked out, according to a report by City Auditor Hannah York.

The auditor's report on city surveillance spending also shows that for $31,386, almost 20 percent the funds spent, there was no listed description of the type of investigatory spending. The report does not provide the list of those employees subject to surveillance by four different city vendors.

The time period York reviewed was July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2014, during most of which the city manager was Bernie Lynch. Kevin Murphy became city manager in mid-April. York identified six different city departments that paid the vendors.

York wrote there was "very little information entered into Munis," the city's electronic financial-reporting software, about the surveillance spending, which averaged $26,413 a year.

"When looking at the actual paper invoice, some had no subject given; some had a subject, but it was blacked out; and the remainder did list the subject who was being observed," York wrote.

For 2009, York was not able to locate paper copies of invoices, but was able to get summary information out of Munis, the computer software.

In fiscal 2010, $31,386 of the Law Department's payment to the private firm Absolute Investigations had no description for the spending.


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York told The Sun "there was no category given, or implied" by the account. Other account descriptions said worker's compensation or surveillance.

"I understand that due to the sensitive nature of the work, sometimes there are legal reasons for not mentioning the subject," York wrote in an email to The Sun. "But going forward, I believe there is a way to give some useful detail without getting into legal issues. For instance, whether the investigation is for fraud or theft, etc."

City Solicitor Christine O'Connor did not respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

Most of the spending was from worker's compensation accounts and police/fire claims accounts. Approximately $100,000 of the overall total was spent in fiscal 2009 and 2010, including a high of $57,009 in fiscal 2010.

The Law Department paid the four firms a combined $103,569, while a general worker's compensation account was used for $41,801 of the spending.

Other spending on Absolute Investigations were made from two Police Department accounts ($6,734 total), a Department of Planning and Development account ($1,445), library state aid ($1,104), Human Relations ($2,234) and a Lowell Public Schools account ($1,589), according to York.

Asked if certain city departments were more likely than others to black out the names of subjects, York said that will be released in a closed-door session with the City Council.

Mayor Rodney Elliott said Friday he was troubled to read that some invoices had no name of the surveillance subject and others had them blacked out, which he said was "very concerning". He also expressed concern that for more than $30,000 there was no specific description of the type of investigatory spending.

"Every penny of taxpayer money needs to be accounted for and the purpose of the spending must be clear, which evidently is not the case with surveillance spending," said Elliott. "It is time for the secrecy to end and for the public to know who was followed and why they were followed."

The mayor added: "I have many questions that still have not been answered, especially by the Law Department, and I will seek those answers."

Both in June and earlier this month the City Council unanimously approved Elliott's requests for the spending information in light of The Sun reporting a former library employee was a subject of surveillance.

When the request was made in August after more details emerged about the surveillance of former library assistant Diane Cloutier, the council asked York to provide the report rather than the city manager's Law Department. Elliott said there remained secrecy around the spending and he wanted the list of those followed. 

York wrote in her report that the names of the subjects of surveillance available will be revealed to the City Council in a closed-door session.

"The detailed subject information will be presented in executive session due to ongoing legal proceedings or agreements with some of the subjects," York wrote. "Some of these subjects would need to be notified in advance if their cases are to be discussed."

The council will discuss York's report Tuesday night. The council's agenda for the meeting also lists an executive session, including discussion regarding matters of worker's compensation cases and other injured on-duty cases.

The private session also lists a planned discussion of claims brought by Cloutier, who recently sued the city, as well as current and former city employees, in Middlesex Superior Court.

Among her allegations, Cloutier has sued the city for invasion of privacy because of video surveillance conducted of her last fall, during fiscal 2014. The footage shot by Absolute Investigations of East Bridgewater included use of a "telescopic lens to intrude into Cloutier's and her mother's private activities in their home at all hours of the day," according to the suit.

York said she is reviewing why a library state aid account was used to pay Absolute Investigations in fiscal 2012.

City Manager Kevin Murphy has pledged not to use Absolute Investigations again in light of the video it shot of Cloutier, which included footage shot when she was off the city payroll.

In the last six fiscal years, the city has paid Absolute Investigations $102,471, according to York.

The city has also used Scope Surveillance, SM Investigations, and Lemieux & Associates. Those firms were only paid through Law Department accounts and the general worker's compensation account.

Lowell has paid SM Investigations, $47,237, Lemieux & Associates $6,018, and Scope Surveillance $2,752.

Follow Lyle Moran on Twitter @lylemoran.