[Home Page] [This Week] [Classifieds] [Legals] [Obituaries] [Newsstands] [Subscriptions] [Advertising] [Deadlines] [About Us] [FAQ] [Archives] [Community Links] [Contact Us]

Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 11, 2010

Comptroller says DA should investigate

By Zach Simeone

RENSSELAERVILLE — Suspecting attempted wrongdoing behind the findings in his recent audit of the town’s finances, the county comptroller has requested that the district attorney’s office investigate a duplicate voucher and over $370,000 in federal funds that weren’t applied for after storm damage in 2007.

In April, after years of citizens raising concerns, Albany County Comptroller Michael Conners offered to review Rensselaerville’s internal controls at no cost to the town. Last month, Conners completed his audit, and gave a preliminary report to the town board, saying that the town lacked any effective accounting system, and that the board was lucky that it had such an “active and involved citizenry.” (For details, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Hilltown archives for Oct. 14, 2010.)

The audit, which covered 2006 through 2009, found a duplicate payment of $7,586, made in 2007 to Carver Sand and Gravel, a company that the town often deals with for highway materials. The second payment was made close to six months after the successful original payment, according to the audit.

Conners returned to Town Hall on Tuesday night to review the town’s responses to his audit, and advised the town that it should investigate the duplicate payment. In its response to the audit, the town board writes that Marie Dermody, who became supervisor in January after being a board member for two years, has begun investigating the matter of the duplicate payment, and will relay any findings to the comptroller’s office.

On Wednesday, Conners sent an e-mail to Christian D’Alessandro, District Attorney David Soares’s chief investigator, requesting an investigation.

“That second voucher; I’m not an attorney, but it’s handwritten, which clearly does indicate intent,” Conners told The Enterprise. “That’ll be for the district attorney to answer.”

When asked about the likelihood of the district attorney’s office looking into this, Spokesperson Heather Orth would not comment on Wednesday, beyond saying, “I can confirm that we received the material and we’re reviewing it.”

Conners points to another item in the audit that he says requires investigation: Joyce Chase, who worked years ago as the town’s clerk for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funds, had copies of town banking records at home.

Chase was re-appointed as FEMA clerk in January to complete paperwork associated with past FEMA projects. She is the wife of G. Jon Chase, a highway superintendent through 2009 who was scrutinized during his term by the same residents that repeatedly called for an audit. Chase, a Democrat, was ousted in the last election.

According to Anthony Fontanelli, who works with Conners, the comptroller’s office requested supporting documentation on a $204,399 certificate of deposit, and Joyce Chase sent a copy of the certificate of deposit from her home.

In response to this observation, the town board writes, “Because of the political climate that existed at the time, as a matter of self-protection and self-preservation, the clerk made copies of documentation regarding FEMA issues to keep at home.”

Joyce Chase could not be reached for comment, but Dermody sought to explain the board’s response this week.

“It was just pretty much mistrust that went on between the supervisor,” at that time Jost Nickelsberg, a Republican, “and the highway superintendent,” at that time G. Jon Chase, “and in order to make sure that documents didn’t go missing, she wanted to make sure she had her own copy,” Dermody said. “I interviewed Joyce Chase, and she said she never had any original documents at home, but, because things tend to go missing, she wanted to have copies of paperwork as proof of its existence.”

Still, Conners sees this as cause for investigation.

“When you get into legal questions, I don’t know,” Conners said Wednesday. “But, from a financial controls point of view, to have an employee bring banking information home rings all types of alarms, and your antennae have to go up. And that’s why we got into going through the FEMA disasters.”

In April of 2007, a storm flooded Pearson Road, which led to the damage and eventual repair of the culvert on that road.

“In 2008, the current FEMA Clerk was terminated, and a consulting company (Earthtech) was contracted with the town to assist with the project management roll,” reads the audit. “Their responsibility was to perform project management and assist the town with FEMA and SEMO [State Emergency Management Office] processing work.”

But Earthtech told Conners’s office that the company was unable to complete the 2007 FEMA project reporting because the town did not furnish materials that were requested.

“They hire Earthtech in 2007 to finish the work,” Conners said, “but they can’t finish the work because they can’t get cooperation from Jon Chase or Joyce Chase to put in an appeal for funding. They didn’t finish the work they were doing for the town because they couldn’t get that cooperation, so they walked away.”

According to Conners’s review, the town spent $373,676 on the repair of the Pearson Road culvert for which it could have been reimbursed. Conners recommended in his audit that the town make an appeal for reimbursement of that funding.

“Now,” Conners said, “if you read the town’s response to the original draft of the review, you can see where they say in their own language that they don’t want to apply for the additional money they’re entitled to.”

According to the audit, Mary Wollaber, a representative of FEMA and SEMO, advised the town board to not pursue an appeal for reimbursement, concerned that, if the town submits a request for re-consideration, FEMA may audit all projects and paperwork for that emergency, though the town board does not share this concern with Wollaber.

And, as stated in the town’s response to the audit, “According to [Wollaber’s] calculations, we had already received $114,000 more than we spent on other projects.”

“She means that we had collected more in FEMA reimbursement than we had spent in doing these jobs,” Dermody said of Wollaber, “because the jobs were done in-house and more cheaply. So, as I understand it, if FEMA grants you a certain amount of money, and you can get the job done for less money, you get to keep the overage, and she was saying that we have $114,000 left from the reimbursement…I told the town board I’d ask for an explanation of what the process entails; the town board has not made a decision as far as whether to go forward with the appeal.”

While the district attorney’s office has not yet decided whether or not it will investigate, Conners’s office has expressed its suspicion, at the end of what Conners said has been an exhausting process.

“The good news,” Conners concluded, laughing, “is that no city, town, or village that reads this draft will ever bring us in to do the same thing to them.”

[Return to Home Page]