If you drive through the small town of Boxboro, you might spot signs in people’s yards expressing support for the community’s longtime police chief, Warren Ryder.
The signs point to an ongoing controversy in the town of roughly 6,000 residents: the police chief has been ordered to stay home on paid administrative leave since the beginning of the year. In the meantime, the cloud of an FBI investigation lingers.
"The town is divided into two," said Andrea Veros, a former town employee of 20 years. "There are people who are still supporting the chief. And then you have the other side of the town who are opening their eyes and saying, 'What the heck is going on?'"
During her tenure, Veros worked as the police chief’s administrative assistant. While working for Ryder, she told us she noticed payroll discrepancies within the department.
In 2020, Veros found herself in hot water with town leaders after a complaint about a social media comment she’d made. She eventually reached an agreement that ended her employment in Boxboro after two decades.
Following her departure, Veros typed a letter that described the payroll allegations and sent the packet of information to members of the Select Board.
"It’s the right thing to do," Veros responded when asked about what motivated her to speak out. "This town needs to know what was going on in that department for years."
According to town records, the police department was overpaying four officers for degrees they had not earned. It’s part of the Quinn Bill program, which allows officers to substantially boost their pay by attaining higher education degrees.
The issue surfaced when a Boxboro officer submitted his degree for the raise and a finance employee realized he was already receiving the higher hourly rate.
In December 2020, Ryder acknowledged the overpayment in an email he sent to the four officers.
"Sorry to be a Grinch, but we just discovered a payroll discrepancy as it relates to your Quinn pay," the chief wrote. "It appears that we may have you in at a level higher than you should be."
According to a review going back six months to the beginning of the fiscal year, the overpayment to the four officers added up to a combined $12,000.
"I’ll be damned if this happens on my watch," said Keith Lyons, a lifelong Boxboro resident. "If this is truly going on, we shouldn’t stand for it."
Lyons served on the town’s finance committee for three years and was a liaison to the police department. But Lyons said Ryder did not inform him of the issues with the erroneous Quinn pay.
"I never knew anything about it," he told us. "In all other circumstances, (Ryder) would always come to me, particularly if it was budget-related, which this was."
A June 2021 email we obtained indicates the overpayments to the four officers were refunded to the town coffers. However, multiple sources told the NBC10 Investigators the overpayments actually date back for years.
That detail is something Veros—the former police administrative assistant—included in her packet of information to town elected leaders.
In an October 2021 Select Board meeting, Ryder spoke for nearly 20 minutes, explaining the issues with the Quinn Bill pay. He also addressed the allegations in Veros’ letter and denied any wrongdoing.
"These letters included complaints and false accusations against me as chief of police," Ryder said. "I stand by my actions as both the police chief and municipal head. And I stand by the actions and professionalism, and frankly, the decorum of all the officers and current staff of the Boxboro Police Department."
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Following his presentation, several Select Board members voiced concern about the chief not taking more responsibility for his actions. In a surprising turn of events, they voted 3-2 to refer the matter to the FBI’s public corruption unit.
"I don’t really know any other better way to restore public trust in this police department," said Wesley Fowlks, who made the initial motion to call in federal law enforcement.
Months later in January, the Select Board unanimously voted to put the police chief on paid administrative leave. Ryder was ordered to return his town vehicle, phone, keys and firearm, according to a letter we obtained that detailed the stipulations of the leave.
When we reached out to Ryder for comment, his attorney sent us a statement that said the police chief is cooperating with investigative entities and is eager to return to his duties with the town.
"Chief Ryder was placed on paid administrative leave based upon the unfounded and baseless allegations made by a small minority of disgruntled Boxboro citizens without regard to the lack of factual support for their allegations," the statement said.
Kristin Hilberg is a real estate agent who grew up in Boxboro and has one of the signs supportive of Ryder in her yard.
"I think I would have liked to have seen more transparency about this whole situation," she said.
Hilberg is a former Select Board member and understands current elected leaders may be privy to sensitive details they can’t release to the public. However, she remains concerned about the quick reaction to call in the feds.
"I wish it hadn’t escalated so quickly," Hilberg said. "It’s unfortunate the chief’s name is now associated with an FBI investigation because you really can’t take that back."
A department lieutenant had been filling in as police chief in Ryder’s absence, but recently retired at the end of June.
The town hired a new acting police chief in June who’s receiving a salary of almost $125,000. Meantime, taxpayers are continuing to fund Ryder’s $155,000 salary while he stays at home.
The scenario of paying for two police chief positions is similar to what has transpired in the town of Mansfield. After seeing our NBC10 investigative reports about that police department controversy, a number of Boxboro residents reached out to us and asked us to shine a light on their community.
Boxboro town leaders told us they could not speak about the ongoing situation and denied our public records request for copies of any federal subpoenas they may have received, saying they are exempt from public disclosure.
Veros said FBI agents spent several hours interviewing her last November. An agency spokesperson would not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
When asked about the characterization of her complaints coming as a "disgruntled" former town employee, Veros responded, "That’s not so. They can say that all they want. People need to hear this story…it’s not right."