By Rick Sobey
BILLERICA -- His name appeared in plenty of headlines more than two years ago for allegedly stealing millions in taxpayer money intended to help special-education students.
But what has happened, or not happened, since John Barranco was accused of gross corruption and fired as director of the Billerica-based Merrimack Special Education Collaborative and Chelmsford-based Merrimack Education Center?
One thing that has happened is that a judge ruled that Barranco's pension would be reinstated.
Other than that, the attorney general's investigation is still ongoing two years and three months after the state inspector general released a bombshell report, claiming Barranco manipulated the two organizations' payrolls, inflating his pension while doling out extravagant salaries and bonuses to himself, his former girlfriend and friends.
Grant Woodman, a spokesman for Attorney General Martha Coakley, said last week he couldn't comment on why the investigation has taken more than two years, and on when the investigation will conclude.
Barranco is accused of misusing at least $37 million at MSEC over several years, taking money targeted for special-needs students and instead spending it on parties, bar tabs, golf outings and out-of-state trips. The state inspector general also said Barranco used the money to renovate and decorate his vacation homes in Lake Winnipesaukee and Florida.
In addition, the report said Barranco used MEC's American Express card to charge more than $50,000 on expensive shoes, costly dinners, furniture and a trip to the Kentucky Derby.
In June 2008, MEC shelled out nearly $57,000 for the annual MEC Boston getaway weekend. According to the IG's report, Barranco used MEC money to buy dinner for 48 people at more than $100 per plate, as well as 24 bottles of wine, 13 bottles of champagne and 274 alcoholic drinks.
The following night, Barranco bought dinner for 48 at $88 per plate, as well as 24 bottles of wine, 10 bottles of champagne, 154 glasses of wine and 43 beers. The weekend also included a $3,000 harbor cruise and $500-per-night rooms at Boston Harbor Hotel.
The list goes on and on.
While the public continues to wait for potential embezzlement and pension-fraud charges from the Attorney General's Office, a former prosecutor in the Middlesex District Attorney's office said forensic accounting and tracing bank accounts can take many years.
"It's not that unusual for financial investigations like this to take so long," said Brad Bailey, now a criminal defense lawyer with Boston's Denner Pellegrino, LLP. "Some levels of the investigation can be easy, but others can be very difficult because the paper trails can go in so many different directions.
"It could be nothing other than the Attorney General's Office doing everything to be thorough and meticulous to cross their I's and dot their T's," added Bailey, who also once served as sheriff of Middlesex County.
Meanwhile, Barranco's lawyer has been in front of the state Contributory Retirement Appeal Board in Boston, appealing a ruling that took Barranco's pension away.
Earlier this year, a Middlesex County Superior Court judge reinstated the pension that the Massachusetts Teachers Retirement System had stripped from Barranco. The ruling, however, hinges on the outcome of Barranco's appeal to the board, the agency that will ultimately determine the fate of his pension.
Nick Poser, Barranco's attorney, said there have been a few hearings in front of the appeal board, and he's unsure when a decision will be made.
"The Massachusetts Teachers Retirement System has no factual basis or legal ability to stop his pension," Poser said. "The teachers retirement system was not within its rights."
Following his 2005 retirement from MSEC, Barranco enjoyed a yearly pension of $157,000 until October 2011, when pension officials alleged he was earning a higher public salary for his work at MEC than allowed while simultaneously earning a pension.
Poser's major argument revolves around the fact that while retired public employees are barred from receiving their pension and working another public-sector job, it is not unlawful for them to collect their pension while working a private-sector job.
A Middlesex County judge earlier this year ruled that pension officials could not prove Barranco was ever directly paid by a government agency while he collected a pension.
MSEC Executive Director Chris Scott, who took over after the scandal became public, wouldn't comment on the investigation and pension. However, she said MSEC is making "great strides to move on."
"We've made significant progress," Scott said. "We're getting that history behind us and going in the right direction. With the restructuring, we're moving forward and looking ahead."
She emphasized MSEC's restructure plan. The collaborative has been leasing six facilities from MEC, but that will change in June 2014, when MSEC will secure its own facilities, according to Scott. She said MSEC will condense from six facilities to three.
Scott said all business operations have been separated from MEC; all that remains is the facilities' leases, which expire in June 2014.
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