Probation for 2 in UMass procurement fraud case

The Hampshire County Courthouse on Gothic Street in Northampton.

The Hampshire County Courthouse on Gothic Street in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 02-03-2024 10:58 AM

NORTHAMPTON — A long-running case against two men accused of conspiring to defraud the University of Massachusetts through an environmental remediation company in which they both had an interest ended Wednesday with the men admitting to sufficient facts and being placed on probation.

Hampshire Superior Court Judge Edward McDonough accepted the change of plea by John Strycharz and Victor Rodrigues and continued their cases without a finding, as requested by the defense. Strycharz was given three years probation and Rodrigues two years, after which the charges will be dismissed.

The attorney general’s office brought felony charges against the men in August 2019 following a wide-ranging investigative grand jury proceeding. Strycharz, 62, who supervised hazardous materials remediation work at UMass from 2003 to 2015, was charged with one count of procurement fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit procurement fraud, four counts of using an official state position to secure unwarranted privileges, two counts of accepting illegal gratuities and one count of larceny over $250.

Rodrigues, 62, who owned environmental remediation firm Compass Restoration Services in Ludlow, was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit procurement fraud, one count of procurement fraud and two counts of giving illegal gratuities to a state employee.

Prosecutors alleged that Strycharz used his position at UMass to secure work for Rodrigues, his friend since childhood, on such university projects as lead, mold and asbestos abatement. In return, Rodrigues allegedly treated his friend to fishing trips in Mexico, boats and other items deemed to be illegal gratuities.

The facts, as presented in court Wednesday by Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Burke, were that the two had worked together at a company called RD Fire, after which Strycharz began working at UMass and Rodrigues formed Compass. Burke asserted that Strycharz had a secret financial interest in the company, and Compass bid on, and won, numerous abatement jobs at UMass.

In return, according to the commonwealth, Rodrigues allowed Strycharz the use of his Florida vacation home, gave him money for a boat, and treated him to a vacation in Mexico. Strycharz also bought respirators for $1,714 on UMass’ tab that Compass was supposed to pay for, and put in for $2,817 worth of overtime that he didn’t work, Burke said.

Burke called for Strycharz to be given an 18-month suspended jail sentence, placed on probation and required to pay restitution in the amount of $4,531.25.

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“Mr. Strycharz repeatedly abused his position of trust at UMass,” Burke said, asking McDonough to find him and Rodrigues guilty of the charges.

Strycharz’s attorney, Colin Keefe, presented a different picture, saying there were multiple defenses on each charge and “a plethora of mitigating factors.” For example, he said, the respirators were needed at UMass for a job under time pressure when a whole building was shut down and needed to reopen quickly, and Compass didn’t have them. They’ve been kept at UMass since, he said.

Keefe described Strycharz as a hard-working man and “an extraordinary person” who has worked hard for all he has, and who would lose his UMass pension if convicted.

Rodrigues’ attorney Jared Olanoff told the judge that the contract bidding process at UMass was blind, and Compass got the jobs by submitting the lowest bid. Strycharz’s responsibility was to oversee the work, he said, and multiple audits showed the remediation work was done well. While Rodrigues is no longer involved in the business, Compass still has contracts for work at UMass, he said.

The prosecution’s initial theory, Olanoff said, was that Rodrigues was giving Strycharz kickbacks — $10,000 payments in white envelopes. After that came to nothing, he said, prosecutors zeroed in on the two friends’ fishing vacations.

Rodrigues, who is legally blind, has followed his pretrial probation “to a T,” Olanoff said, and is eager to move on to the next phase of his life.

“Mr. Rodrigues has always denied these allegations,” Olanoff said outside court. “Under this disposition, he’s able accept a resolution that will ultimately lead to dismissal of the charges.”

Both defendants are now Maine residents and will complete the terms of their sentences there.

Keefe said Strycharz, who will have to pay restitution and perform 100 hours of community service, was satisfied with the court’s decision and considered it a fair resolution.

“This was the most appropriate resolution,” Olanoff said.

He noted, as he had during a hearing before McDonough earlier this month, that reading through the 3,500 pages of grand jury notes in the case would be the equivalent of reading “War and Peace” 8½ times, and that a trial would likely last five weeks.

Four different assistant attorneys general took the lead on the case, and the grand jury, which had subpoena power, convened on 12 dates over four months, he said.

Burke declined comment.

James Pentland can be reached at jpentland@gazettenet.com.