State to verify West Haven officials’ use of federal pandemic relief funds

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Mayor Nancy Rossi defended several overtime and compensatory time payments that were given to high-ranking members of her administration.

A team of auditors is set to examine tens of thousands of dollars in overtime pay that has been paid to several West Haven officials over the past year as part of an ongoing investigation into city ​​finances.

On October 6, the State’s Office of Policy and Management sent a letter to West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi, asking her administration to explain why a handful of employees were able to increase their annual income. by making payments out of the approximately $ 1.1 million in the federal CARES program. Law on financing the city received last year.

This federal funding is already at the center of a financial scandal after federal criminal charges were filed against two city employees over the past month. Federal authorities arrested Michael DiMassa, a former Democratic state lawmaker and City of West Haven employee, on October 20, and on Thursday the FBI indicted John Bernardo, who allegedly worked as a housing specialist in West Haven.

The two are accused of paying more than $ 636,000 in federal aid to an alleged shell company they created earlier this year.

OPM’s audit of West Haven’s finances is expected to examine all of the city’s CARES Act spending over the past year, but the state is already focusing on the extra money that has been sent to several highs. West Haven government officials.

The city recently provided information to the state which showed more than $ 80,000 in CARES Act funding had been used to pay West Haven administrative officials for hundreds of overtime hours they allegedly worked during the pandemic.

Some of that money also went to DiMassa and Bernardo, according to records obtained by the CT Mirror.

DiMassa, 30, told the Mirror in early September that he received more than $ 14,000 for overtime from federal funding, but he claimed all of those payments were legal.

“Do you think I would sacrifice my reputation for $ 14,000?” He asked at the time.

State Representative Michael DiMassa leaves New Haven federal court on October 20, 2021.

DiMassa and his attorney, John Gulash, did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment on this story. Bernardo has not returned many voicemail messages left on his cell phone for over a month.

But they aren’t the only city officials to have received additional compensation through federal funding.

Financial records obtained by the CT Mirror show that a handful of people named by Rossi also received checks from the city’s CARES Act fund. This includes Louis Esposito, Rossi’s executive assistant; Thomas McCarthy, the director of public works; Beth Sabo, director of human resources; and Lee Tiernan, the best lawyer in town. Similar checks were also sent to Maureen Lillis, West Haven health director, and Mark Bisaccia, who works in the city’s community development administration.

Most of those West Haven employees did not respond to emails sent to them this week. Tiernan, who served as the city’s legal advisor, said he was following city policies when he claimed hundreds of hours of compensation during the pandemic.

Several West Haven residents have been complaining for months about this overtime pay, especially the checks that have been given to people appointed by Rossi. In response, several people attempted to request information about these payments through the Freedom of Information Act, bBut those requests went unanswered throughout the summer and early fall as Rossi ran for re-election.

Under certain circumstances, under the CARES Act, cities and towns can use federal aid money to cover additional salary costs for municipal employees. Corn federal rules say these workers must be “substantially dedicated” to “mitigating or responding” to the pandemic.

As a result, the OPM asked Rossi and his team to provide documents showing that each person who received the federal money actually worked the hours they claimed. The state also wants the city to show how this work was linked to the pandemic.

OPM officials informed Rossi in early October that his administration should provide auditors with all policies that dictate how and when city employees can claim overtime and compensation hours, which are frequently used as vacation days. additional.

Martin Heft, deputy secretary at OPM, said auditors should also understand how officials appointed to West Haven track their pay time and when these hours can be exchanged for additional pay.

The CT Mirror asked Rossi for the same city policies last week. The mayor responded by producing a 2017 letter written by Sabo, who served as the city’s human resources commissioner for several years.

In that letter, Sabo explained that West Haven allows appointed officials to keep their own records of the number of hours worked. And as long as those hours are written down somewhere in private, salaried employees can cash in any overtime for additional compensation.

“It has always been that some appointed employees have documented their time off for responsibility and some choose not to record any. Each appointed official, if he documents, has always kept the files himself, ”explained Sabo.

Beth Sabo, West Haven’s human resources commissioner, claimed in a 2017 letter that officials appointed to the city could keep track of the overtime they worked in their own files and that compensation time be paid by the city.

According to the letter, the only verification of this private payroll information is final approval by the “elected chief of West Haven.”

Members of the state’s Municipal Accountability Review Board, which has overseen West Haven’s finances for several years now, have already expressed skepticism about the city’s financial oversight this week.

In a meeting on Wednesday, mMembers of that state review panel questioned whether West Haven’s lax accounting practices contributed to DiMassa’s alleged theft of more than half of the city’s CARES law funding. And they wondered if the state should intervene with more force in the finances of West Haven.

Stephen Falcigno, one of the MARB board members, said he was frustrated with the time it took West Haven to make basic improvements to its finance department. Many of the problems faced by the city, he added, can be attributed to a lack of basic financial controls.

“That’s where all these problems come from. They stem from the fundamental problems that we have been talking about for two years, ”he said. “It’s getting a little tiring. ”

In September, Rossi told the CT Mirror that she did not know who signed the overtime that her employees billed to the CARES Act fund. “I should check it out because I don’t have any competition time,” Rossi said at the time.

But last week she changed that answer. She defended the extra money her appointees received and said she personally signed off all the overtime they logged during the coronavirus pandemic.

“During COVID, I approved the preparation time for my appointed officials, Louis Esposito, Beth Sabo, Lee Tiernan and Tom McCarthy,” Rossi explained via email. “They were all here during the COVID pandemic, just like me. Myself and all of my named officials, mentioned above, were working many hours of overtime, sometimes doubling their weekly 35 hours to keep our employees and residents safe. ”

These people, Rossi said, could not take time off during the pandemic and as a result they were paid for their overtime. She also said that some of the extra time her staff spent was spent working at a local food bank.

It is not clear at this point whether West Haven’s policies for documenting its overtime costs will comply with federal regulations under the CARES Act. It’s up to OPM and its CohnReznick listeners to sort it out.

The results of this audit could take several months, according to OPM officials. But that didn’t stop Rossi’s political opponents from grabbing the federal money that went to his entourage.

Barry Cohen, the Republican candidate for mayor, said it was “unacceptable” and “scandalous” for West Haven officials to keep their own payroll records. And he wondered if those officials could prove how much extra time they had spent during the pandemic.

“Where are the newspapers?” Where is the documentation? Cohen asked.

The Mirror submitted requests for this type of information in early September, but West Haven officials have yet to release the documents.


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