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COMMENTARY Parking employees reduced fined by millions

July 28, 2018

GREENWICH — Unauthorized parking fine discounts cost the town more than $2 million over a nearly seven-year period from January 2010 through June 2017, according to a confidential forensic analysis ordered by the town’s finance board.

In all, the external forensic analysts identified fine discounts totaling $8,510,953, of which $2,081,355, or 24 percent, were unauthorized, which, the analysts defined as “potentially representing or appearing to be unauthorized discounts or reductions, malfeasance and/or lost revenue to the Town of Greenwich.”

The Board of Estimate and Taxation hired RSM US LLP, an international audit and tax consultancy, in May 2017 after the town’s internal auditor issued a scathing report about lax cash and accounting practices in the Parking Services Division, and after the arrest of a parking services employee who allegedly stole thousands of dollars. The Parking Services Division generates about $5.5 million annually.

The 28-page forensic report is dated September 14, 2017 and is labelled “Privileged and Confidential — Attorney Work Product. Draft — For Discussion Purposes Only.” Greenwich Time obtained a copy of the report Saturday morning. It points to potential “malfeasance” several magnitudes greater than the charges against one employee.

The town’s own internal audit report was first issued in June 2017, but was quickly pulled from the town’s website and has remained unavailable to the public since. The State’s Attorney’s Office at the time made the specious claim that it pulled the report from public scrutiny to protect its case against Michael Gordon, the arrested parking services employee. But Gordon’s defense lawyer must have known about the report and must have demanded that it be made available to him. So, why continue to keep the report from public scrutiny?

Hiding the report during the 2017 municipal election campaign clearly served to insulate First Selectman Peter Tesei from having to explain how a department that reported directly to him, not to the full Board of Selectmen, and not overseen by an RTM committee like many town departments, was so cavalier with financial reporting and had a culture that apparently enabled widespread fraud.

In February 2017, this paper revealed the improper use of political influence to obtain commuter parking permits. The Parking Services Division had improperly issued a commuter parking pass to Electra Reed, daughter of the late Joseph Verner Reed, a longtime U.S. ambassador and close confidant of President George H.W. Bush and his family. Ms. Reed spent not one day on the years-long waiting list.

Shortly after the revelation of favoritism, the internal audit report, conducted by the Finance Department, found “inadequate to non-existent” revenue management, a situation that required “immediate attention.” The auditor wrote that she was “unable to identify a single, auditable record to adequately support and document any of the revenue activities.”

During the 2017 campaign, Tesei publicly defended Parking Services Director Rita Azrelyant’s management of the department, but in private he warned that the Parking Services Division troubles could cost him the election. About a week after his narrow victory, Tesei praised Azrelyant as he announced that he was terminating her job. Azrelyant then filed a whistleblower suit against the town, claiming her job was eliminated in retaliation for her raising serious concerns about the department’s financial controls.

The town hired Azrelyant as parking services director in July 2014. Within six months she was meeting with Finance Department and risk management officials because of her concerns that she could not account for certain parking revenues. Even though the division had been audited in 2014, before Azrelyant’s hiring, her concerns led to a second audit, the one that is still kept confidential.

It is very unusual for a town department to be audited twice in two years. Perhaps the most disturbing finding of the most recent audit was that the department had not implemented the many changes recommended in 2014. Azrelyant said several months ago that during her first days on the job, she was told the 2014 changes had been made.

Since Azrelyant’s departure, Town Administrator Benjamin Branyan has taken over day to day management of the Parking Services Division and has hired retired town risk manager Ron Lalli as temporary director, working three days a week.

By “eliminating” the parking services director’s job, Tesei was able to let Azrelyant go with no apparent cause. He announced early in 2018 a search for an outside consulting firm to assist him and other town officials in determining how best to reorganize the parking department. After the deadline for the RFP, the town said only one firm had met the bid requirements, and that two others had missed the filing deadline. However, this paper revealed that a second firm’s bid remained unopened in the Town Hall mailroom and the time stamp showed it had been received hours before the deadline.

The town threw out the first round of bids and re-issued the Request for Proposal. The town has now decided to hire SP Plus, a parking operating and consulting firm, according to Town Hall sources. Tesei, through his spokesperson Barbara Heins, said there would be no announcement until contracts were signed.

Bob Horton can be reached at bobhorton@yahoo.com.

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