SHIRLEY -- With a successful appeal on the record that cancels out his 2016 conviction for forgery, Recreation Commissioner Keith Begun -- a lifelong town resident who has served on the Recreation Commissioner for 18 years -- can now say that justice has been served.
The two-year legal battle brought professional losses and personal issues and lingering fallout from newspaper articles, Google trails, Facebook posts and social media clutter the case left in its wake.
Aiming to set the record straight now that his appeal has been settled and the case resolved, Begun, 55, recently reached out to the Nashoba Valley Voice with new court documents in hand, underscoring his assertion that the offense a jury found him guilty of in October 2016, wasn't a crime in the first place.
In a court order dated Feb. 2, 2018, The Massachusetts Appeals Court stated that in the case of the Commonwealth vs H.Keith Begun, pending in Ayer District Court, Middlesex County, the following entry must be made on the docket: "The judgment is vacated, the verdict is set aside,and the matter is dismissed."
The case is now officially closed.
To recap: Amid a litany of accusations and several charges Begun faced at the time of his arrest in February 2016, the charge that stuck was a single count of forgery, based on the fact that he had signed a fellow Recreation Commissioner's name on a reimbursement slip submitted to the town.
The document in question sought reimbursement for heavy-duty landscaping equipment Begun bought on behalf of the commission to maintain fields it is responsible for, including Wilde Road Field, 10-acres owned by the state Dept. of Corrections that the town has longstanding permission to use, and a 3-acre tract behind the Senior Center. Begun said he signed the other person's signature -- with permission -- to expedite the pay-back process. The other commissioner later signed the slip as well.
As news reports stated at the time, Begun spotted equipment for sale on Craigslist and bought it from a farm business in New Hampshire. But stories that called the business "bogus" were misleading. It was a legitimate outfit whose owner has since moved out of the state, he said.
As for the "forged" signature, Begun said it was no forgery. There was no attempt to deceive anyone, he said or to personally profit from his purchase of the town-owned equipment, which included a spreader, a tractor, and a 7-foot mower deck. The equipment is stored in a DPW facility.
Begun also noted that a larceny charge was dismissed, among others. He was found not guilty of the charge that got him "shackled and handcuffed," he said.
Begun's account of events is disturbing, but he's not aiming to elicit sympathy by describing his ordeal, he said. He wants the ending of this story properly told.
Last year, with a new Board of Selectmen seated after a recall election, another area of suspicion was apparently cleared up when the District Attorney's office agreed to drop its investigation into the self-funded Recreation Commission's financial records after an independent audit the board had initiated was concluded. The audit report showed no irregularities in the commission's revolving account, no money missing, Begun said.
"He suggested some changes...but found nothing wrong," he said.
As for signing another commissioner's name on a reimbursement request, it might not have been a best practices move but it was standard practice for town boards such as the Recreation Commission to sign off for one another, Begun said. It was a reciprocal arrangement that has now been discontinued.
Begun said one good thing that came out of it all was the outpouring of support he got from townspeople, including his fellow commissioners. "The courtroom was packed" with supporters, he said. At one point, at the defense attorney's request and with the judge's permission, they all stood up. "It was impressive... I think it made a difference," he said.
Begun sees no ambiguity in the new court ruling, no room for skeptical re-spin. "It's not a technicality," he said. "I didn't do anything illegal."
Nor does he consider his successful appeal a moot point to raise now, even though the forgery charge would most likely have been dropped anyway.
According to a Lowell Sun story about Begun's trial, conviction and subsequent sentencing session in Ayer District Court, the judge did not levy a fine or prison time, but declined to upend the jury's guilty verdict. Instead, the judge ordered the charges to be dropped after a year, if certain conditions were met. It might have been the best outcome he could hope for at the time, but it did not clear his name. In his view, the Appeals Court's decision does that.
Asked if speaking out now might re-ignite old grudges, Begun said he's prepared for fallout and ready to move on. Actually, he's been doing that already. Begun did not step down as Recreation Commission chairman as the court case moved forward, was re-elected despite the flap, and aims to continue in his longtime volunteer job.
When talk turned to cheerier topics, such as Shirley's recreation programs, Begun rattled off the roster, from non-school youth sports for various age groups such as basketball and soccer to the Penguins Swim Team to adult Yoga. Noting agreements with other town entities such as the elementary and middle schools, Benjamin Hill Park and the library that allow use of their facilities for town sports and recreation programs, he also talked about fields the Rec takes care of that need major sprucing up, among other items on his group's to do list. Asked about future goals, his eyes lit up.
"The town needs a Parks Department!" he said. And recreation can always use coaches. Plus, there's a seat open on the five-member board, if anyone's interested.