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Hilltowns Archives The Altamont Enterprise, January 22, 2009
Riled residents spur probe of Rensselaerville’s finances
By Zach Simeone
RENSSELAERVILLE Spurred by a group of suspicious residents, state and county officials are investigating the town’s finances.
Robert Bolte and Ken Cooke came to the January town board meeting with photocopied vouchers that recorded payments from the highway department that the supervisor and councilmen could not account for. Bolte and a group of town residents began looking through town records last spring.
“What really got us snooping was the Association of Towns meeting last year,” Bolte said. Some town officials attending the convention in New York City had used taxpayer money for questionable purchases like alcoholic drinks.
With the town’s bookkeeping in question this month, the board voted unanimously to hand its records over to Investigator Robert Muller at the Office of the Albany County District Attorney.
“State authorities are looking into the problem,” Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg told The Enterprise this week. Asked if he had heard back from the district attorney’s office, he said, “I can’t talk about that,” as he might endanger the investigation.
Muller declined to comment, and Highway Superintendent G. Jon Chase could not be reached for comment.
Bolte said that other entities are investigating as well, but chose not to reveal which ones. “We know those vouchers aren’t right, and there is no explanation of it,” Bolte said. “We have our suspicions, but I don’t want to accuse anyone of how this money is making the circle,” he said.
Albany County Comptroller Mike Connors told The Enterprise this week that his office is cooperating in the investigation.
“We’re working with the investigator at the district attorney’s office on this,” Connors said, “and we’re hopeful that something we do can help resolve this.”
Bolte had tried in the past to get cooperation from the state and county comptrollers and the attorney general’s office on looking into the matter, but met with little success.
The town, Nickelsberg said, has had “problems with accountability relative to spending money for a long time. I’ve only been here 14 years, but on the job for three years, so I’ve only been aware of this since then,” he said. “We put a voucher system and procurement policy in place in 2006, during the first few months that I was in office, and we said that for any purchase over $200, spending the money of the people, you have to come see me.”
Certain sections on some vouchers were handwritten rather than stamped, and other sections left blank. Details like these raised suspicion among residents like Bolte, as well as Nickelsberg, and no town official that has looked at the documents knows whom the handwriting belongs to.
“When we went to state authorities, we said that we want to know why they’re hand written, whose handwriting it is, and why there are duplicates of some vouchers,” Nickelsberg said.
A number of the vouchers show payments made to Carver Sand and Gravel, LLC and Carver Construction Inc., different parts of one Guilderland business that was the low bidder on several town projects in recent years.
Mike Caputo, Carver’s vice president, provided some insight.
One voucher, dated May 30, 2007, for a payment of $7,586.60 to Carver Sand and Gravel, LLC. lacks a certifying signature from Carver at the bottom.
“That’s a legitimate bill,” Caputo told The Enterprise this week, after looking through company records. “That was for when we paved Schoolhouse Road in Preston Hollow for them. I can tell you the bill came from us,” he said.
On some of the vouchers, like the one connected with the Schoolhouse Road project, the supplier’s name and address are handwritten; on others, the name and address are stamped. Bolte recalled hearing that all vouchers had to be stamped, none handwritten. This, Caputo said, is not the case.
“Sometimes, we’ll end up with a purchase for a municipality that we’ve never done business with before, so we’ll send a statement, and they’ll make it out down there, especially in a busy time of the year,” said Caputo.
Another voucher Bolte brought to the town’s attention lists a $27,203.72 purchase, and the claimant’s name and address are again handwritten. This payment, however, was not in Carver’s records, according to Caputo.
“I have one statement here that is dated Sept. 30, in the amount of $26,754.92, but that’s a combination of a whole bunch of them,” said Caputo. The $27,000-plus payment could be the sum of several different purchases, he said.
Upon viewing a faxed copy of this voucher, Caputo said, “That’s our writing, and the amount of the invoice is our writing.” The handwriting, he said, is that of Scott Heiser.
Handwriting on other Carver vouchers is similar to Heiser’s, like the capitalization of every ‘T’ written, regardless of the word, or its placement in the word.
“Carver Construction does its own billing, and Carver Sand and Gravel does its own,” Caputo said. “In 2007, our paving crew was under Carver Construction, and then, last year, we switched it over to Carver Sand and Gravel. Since Carver Construction billed this job, Scott in the office hand-wrote that in.”
Lack of interest
Beginning in May of 2008, Bolte began approaching government agencies, offering copies of the town records in question in hope of starting an investigation.
“We started out talking with the state comptroller back in May, and it was shortly thereafter that we had the interview with the comptroller’s investigative unit,” Bolte said. The comptroller’s office forwarded his request for attention to its division of investigations.
“They did a complete interview with us for many hours,” Bolte said. “They took copies of this whole stack of vouchers that we had, and, just like any government agency, they said they’d look into it and they haven’t.”
Asked about the case, Investigator Raymond Russell from the state comptroller’s Division of Investigations said, “In cases like this, I’m not authorized to speak on it.” The division’s press office was unavailable for comment.
Bolte also spoke with Assistant Attorney General Nancy Snyder, who works in the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau, as well as Connors, the county comptroller.
The county comptroller’s office did not look into it, initially, because it doesn’t have the authority to audit cities, towns and villages, Connors told The Enterprise this week. “That’s the authority of the state comptroller’s office,” he said.
Snyder could not be reached for comment.
“They were given copies of everything, and the reaction was that they have too few investigators to check into this stuff,” Bolte said.
“I don’t understand why the attorney general’s office isn’t investigating this after being handed this thing on a golden platter. If this government of ours wants to save money, why don’t they get rid of these agencies that aren’t doing their job?”
Bolte concluded, “This thing is being put further, and we’re not going to stop. I’m not going to point the finger at anybody, but a full investigation will eventually point to the people who are the problem.”
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