Cops probe Bridgeport department’s scrap metal sales

November 8, 2018

BRIDGEPORT — Police are investigating allegations that public facilities employees have been misappropriating cash from the sale of scrap metal — charges similar to those probed in Stamford’s vehicle maintenance department eight years ago.

Police Chief Armando Perez confirmed Thursday that, at the request of City Council members, he had the Office of Internal Affairs open a case into the scrap metal claim and other alleged improprieties outlined in an anonymous letter.

Hearst Connecticut Media also has a copy of that letter, sent to council members last month.

“I can confirm they (Internal Affairs) have been working on it and the City Attorney is also aware of it,” Perez said. “It’s an anonymous letter, but we are looking into it. There are allegations there that are very serious, in my opinion.”

Though the Office of Internal Affairs normally investigates other cops, Perez said public facilities, which oversees road, building and sidewalk maintenance, parks, and trash hauling and recycling, is “well within our purview.”

Public Facilities Director John Ricci said in an interview Thursday, “I’m aware of the letter. I’m aware there’s some kind of investigation into the content and, hopefully, the source.”

Ricci, Mayor Joe Ganim’s public facilities chief since 2016, admitted the department has an off-the-books petty cash fund of proceeds from the sale of any scrap metal leftover from city construction projects or municipal clean-ups. That debris is, Ricci said, separate from metal amassed by the city at its transfer station on Asylum Street and sold, with the money deposited in a municipal account and recorded in the city budget.

Ricci said the money in his petty cash or so-called sunshine fund is modest — maybe $5,500 collected over three years — and has a few uses: To purchase birthday cakes or tickets for cultural/social events to boost employee morale; to pay for meals and accommodations for public facilities staff who work during snow storms and other severe weather; to buy all-weather apparel for staff; to make quick minor parts purchases; to donate to causes like food pantries, youth sports, funerals or Toys for Tots.

The anonymous letter called the sunshine fund — which Ricci said was in place under his predecessors — “a scam.”

“In no other administration was metal sold for cash using the guise that the money was to be used for picnics or other special events,” stated the letter. And, the writer alleged, the money in question is closer to $25,000 in profits over two years.

Hearst was able to confirm the prior existence of public facilities’ petty cash fund. According to one source, however, in the past it was supported by small donations from employees.

Meanwhile the city’s Finance Department has, according to a recent monthly budget report, since July 1 taken in $56,776 for scrap metal collected at the transfer station. The 2018/19 municipal anticipated at least $100,000 in scrap metal revenues.

Christmas in Stamford

The anonymous letter writer also raised questions about whether public facilities contracts were properly bid and if some of those contracts were awarded businesses with family-connections to the department.

As a result, City Council President Aidee Nieves and budget committee co-chairs Councilwomen Denese Taylor-Moye and Maria Zambrano Viggiano are seeking bid documents, waivers and other paperwork related to public facilities’ purchases.

Council members, who met privately about the anonymous letter Monday following their regular meeting, have agreed not to discuss the matter publicly. But one member who wished to remain anonymous said, “Some of us feel that the letter has a lot of validity and it warrants a deeper, more intense budget review.”

Council members initially brought the claims about the improper scrap metal sales to the Chief State’s Attorney and were advised that the council and police should investigate.

The Chief State’s Attorney was involved in a similar scrap metal controversy surrounding Stamford’s vehicle maintenance operations in 2010 and 2011. That probe, initially launched by the police, found that Stamford municipal workers for years sold small quantities of scrap metal for cash, and used the proceeds — no more than $3,000 annually — for “morale-boosting purposes” like annual Christmas parties.

The investigation found “no evidence that either the employees or the supervisors kept any of the cash for themselves. The lack of larcenous intent is further undermined by the fact that this practice has been the norm in Stamford for at least 35 years.”

But three city employees were temporarily suspended without pay and Stamford tightened its scrap metal procedures.

Conflicts of interest?

Ricci is a City Hall veteran with plenty of political connections. He ran the airport, which also falls under public facilities, for years until Mayor Bill Finch in 2013 fired him for an alleged conflict-of-interest. Ricci sued and was allowed instead to retire.

In 2015 Ricci helped Ganim, originally mayor in the 1990s, topple Finch in that year’s Democratic primary. Ganim, after winning the 2015 general election, hired Ricci to run public facilities. Ricci recently advised Ganim’s failed gubernatorial bid.

Another big supporter of Ganim’s 2015 comeback and his campaign for governor? Perez, whom Ganim promoted from captain to acting chief in March, 2016 and, earlier this week, named permanent chief with a five-year-contract.

Asked if he had a conflict-of-interest of his own in probing Ricci and public facilities, Perez said no: “My credibility and my ethics are unimpeachable. We’re going to protect the city. If someone has done something improperly, they’re going to pay the price.”

Update hourly