AUGUSTA – Angry city officials are challenging a ruling that granted unemployment benefits to a former fire department captain who stole money from the Augusta firefighters’ union.
They have asked a judge to overturn a 2-1 ruling by the Maine Unemployment Insurance Commission that Robert MacMaster, 39, of Manchester is entitled to unemployment benefits because he took money from union members rather than the employer.
“While the claimant’s conduct may reflect an untrustworthy character, his actions do not demonstrate a blatant disregard for the employer’s interests,” the commission ruled. “The employer has not met its burden of showing that the claimant’s conduct met the definition of misconduct set forth in the statute.”
The appeal will be decided by a single justice in Kennebec County Superior Court.
Stephen Langsdorf, the city’s attorney, said Tuesday the city’s appeal is very unusual.
“We felt this was an outrageous decision of the Unemployment Insurance Commission, and it was not in the city’s best interest to let it stand,” Langsdorf said.
Langsdorf said MacMaster’s theft of $3,565 from the Augusta Uniformed Firefighters Association was “directly related” to his employment.
“It is the city’s position that the fire captain is a position of public trust which involves access to personal property and valuables, and a duty to act in the public best interest,” Langsdorf wrote in the petition to the court. “Dishonesty, particularly theft of union dues by a union official, clearly is misconduct directly connected to his employment. Simply put, his fellow firefighters, supervisors and the public at large cannot in good faith rely on the claimant’s integrity.”
The state unemployment insurance commission is represented by Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Wyman, who was unavailable Tuesday because of the state shutdown day.
Langsdorf said that, if the city wins the appeal, MacMaster could be forced to repay the unemployment money he has received.
City Manager William Bridgeo said Tuesday the city, which is self-insured for unemployment compensation, has reimbursed the state about $8,600 for benefits MacMaster received between February and September 2010. Bridgeo said payments to MacMaster stopped for an unknown reason in September 2010.
MacMaster is scheduled to be in Kennebec County Superior Court today to answer to an indictment charging him with four counts of sex abuse of a minor and one count of gross sexual assault.
All the charges name the same victim, who allegedly was between 14 and 15 years old in the four charges of sexual abuse of a minor; and younger than 18 when the gross sexual assault allegedly occurred.
MacMaster is free on $2,000 cash bail on those charges. Bail conditions ban him from contact with children younger than 16.
In January, MacMaster served a 14-day jail sentence for the theft from the Augusta Uniformed Firefighters Association. The complaint said the theft by deception, a felony, occurred between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2009.
MacMaster, who had no criminal record prior to that conviction, resigned from the Augusta Fire Department on July 10, 2009.
He had been placed on administrative leave by the city manager and fire chief in early July after the union’s executive board reported members had met with the police regarding MacMaster and missing union funds.
MacMaster joined the Fire Department in 1993 and served as the local union president for a number of years.
“Every other member of that department now bore animus to that guy,” Bridgeo said. “There was no way he could continue to work there from the employer’s perspective. Firefighters and paramedics by definition are those with public trust … there can be no cloud over anybody who is in that position of trust.”