An elected official is getting full-time pay to run a busy office, but a FOX Undercover investigation found he’s barely there, spending his work day instead at his private law practice, running errands, even at local watering holes.
After watching Robert F. Kelley, the Northern Essex Register of Deeds, on eight days over three months, FOX Undercover found he’s usually working at the Lawrence-based registry for just an hour or two a day.
“I do the job that has to be done,” Kelley told FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet in a brief interview last week.
He is certainly getting paid to do the job. His taxpayer-funded annual salary is more $90,397. That's on top of what he makes from his law practice, which garnered him between $60,001 and $100,000 last year, he disclosed in state Ethics Commission filings.
It’s a pretty good living for Kelley, good enough for him to drive a Mercedes Benz and live in a beautiful home in Andover.
When he was running for office, he told a local newspaper he'd "work hard" to run the registry. Beaudet asked him about the pledge.
“I'm doing the best I can. Obviously we're very proud of what's going on at the registry. It’s being run well and we're doing the job that people expect us to,” Kelley replied.
“Don't voters deserve someone who is committed?” Beaudet asked.
“Well I think the voters -- I'm very pleased to be able to serve the voters, to tell you the truth, and I'm doing the best I can,” Kelley said.
The best he can doesn't require much time at the office. Most days we watched were like Jan. 28, when Kelley left his house shortly after 10 a.m. and headed to the registry, which opens at 8 a.m.
An hour later, he leaves the registry for his Lawrence law office, not to return to the registry again for the day.
On Jan. 31, he again arrives at the registry just after 10 a.m. and stays for just over an hour. He doesn't return to the registry but does find time to get his car washed.
It’s the same story on Feb. 15. He arrives at the registry just after 10 o'clock, then goes to his law office, runs errands, even takes a quick trip back to the registry.
At three o'clock, he's leaves the registry, having spent no more than 2 hours 45 minutes at the office he was elected to run.
Then last week, he works for about an hour in the morning at the registry, drives to a restaurant, then to his house, then back to his law office, where FOX Undercover caught up with him.
“We've also seen you going into bars during the workday. Is that appropriate?” asked Beaudet.
“I don't go into bars during the day,” Kelley replied.
“We've seen you drinking, sir,” Beaudet said.
“Well I'm sorry,” Kelley said.
“Do you drink on the job?” Beaudet asked.
“No, I do not,” said Kelley, who then drove away.
Kelley was observed twice entering Lawrence bars in the afternoon.
Then, on Jan. 18, a FOX Undercover team followed him into a Lawrence bar at 3:45 p.m. with hidden cameras rolling as Kelley tossed back two drinks. He left, and his car was seen soon after at his law office.
“If that's working as hard as he can, that's a pretty low bar,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank.
“When you pay someone $90,000-a-year, when the average salary is far below that and when people are in Massachusetts are struggling quite a lot, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are unemployed, you expect someone to work full time and work to the best of their abilities,” Stergios said.
Stergios even questions why Massachusetts has elected registers of deeds, especially since so many records at the registry are or should be online.
As for Kelley, Stergios says the FOX Undercover investigation should force him out.
“This is certainly an individual who has issues that needs to be dealt with and I think there's a certain amount of accountability we should expect of every public official. We need to exert that now. Someone needs to call him to move on,” he said.
Secretary of State Bill Galvin oversees 13 of the 21 registries in Massachusetts, including the one Kelley runs, but it doesn't look like Kelly has anything to worry about with him.
A spokesman for Galvin declined to comment for this story except to say the office has heard no complaints about Kelley and that voters are the ones to hold him accountable.
Kelley and the other registers are up for re-election this year.