Audit adds controversy to mayor’s race
Date: 11/4/2011Oct. 31, 2011
By G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD — The political fallout from the release of the audit on the finances of Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical High School has yet to be determined. Both City Council President Jose Tosado and Mayor Domenic Sarno are using the report as a talking point.
For Tosado, the report shows a lack of accountability and transparency in the Sarno Administration and for Sarno the release of the report days before the election demonstrates his dedication to open government.
“I doubt many mayors would release the report two weeks before an election,” Sarno said at a press conference on Oct. 26, the day after the School Committee and School Superintendent Dr. Alan Ingram released it to the press and public.
“Let the chips fall where they may,” Sarno added.
When asked if Ingram should take some of the responsibility for the financial corruption at Putnam, Sarno said yes, and added a paraphrase of President Harry Truman, “The buck stops with me.”
Sarno said that two previous mayors, the Finance Control Board and the state’s Department of Education hadn’t “picked this up.”
Tosado questioned why the city’s “well staffed, highly paid finance staff” had not insisted on the annual audit dictated by state law. He noted this failure came after over-payment to teachers and then an under-payment to Ingram.
Tosado agreed with Sarno, who took responsibility for the financial corruption at Putnam.
“Ultimately, the mayor is in charge,” Tosado said. He added he was “completely shocked, disappointed and disgusted” by the events.
Tosado called for a citywide audit of the city’s schools and departments.
The audit, which was 14 months in the making, revealed financial corruption at the high school at least under the administration of the last two principals. Some of the infractions noted in the audit included: the use of school funds to purchase equipment such as cameras and computers for personal use; double-billing the system for reimbursements; disregarding the protocol established for choosing a vendor, and using the school’s vocational resources for personal gain.
Unidentified employees side stepped financial rules to do everything from buy a personal membership to Costco with school money to reward mystery scholarships to paying $1,900 for funeral arrangements.
The audit stated, “$1,208.65 was paid to a restaurant and the bill provided as back-up documentation from the restaurant was only $208.65.”
The audit focused on the Putnam High School Student Association checkbook, an account that was out of the financial control system of the School Department or the city. While, the audit noted, it is not uncommon for vocational schools to have a different financial setup than other schools, Putnam has had no control over the account.
The audit stated, “There were virtually no controls in place over cash receipts and disbursements. The checkbook register contained no record of deposits or carrying balances and the last bank statement reconciled was June 2003. We were unable to find supporting documentation for many checkbook transactions.”
The report continued, “We found many large payments were made to employees as reimbursement for items purchased personally by the employees. An employee may have purposely deleted records from a school computer to circumvent Office of Internal Audit review.
“There were no inventory records for computers, equipment, shop supplies or donated equipment. We were unable to locate a substantial number of computers and other technological equipment purchased with school and Perkins Grant funding,” according to the audit.
The complete audit can be read online at the School department’s website at www.sps.springfield.ma.us
As a result of the audit, four employees were terminated, one was suspended and demoted and two resigned. The names of the employees have not been released and the names of the principals involved are not mentioned in the report. According to City Solicitor Edward Pikula, the report and its release could not impede any criminal investigation that may be undertaken by the office of the Attorney General. City Councilor Timothy Rooke said that in telephone conversations he has had with representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, an investigation could not be confirmed or denied.
The checkbook in question was closed in November 2010 and a number of steps have been taken to prevent such corruption from happening again. Those include: documenting formal policies and procedures, specifically cash management; installing cash registers; establishing an accounting manager and financial analyst position at the school; and implementing a new Student Activities Account software program.
“We want to send a message loud and clear that we have cleaned up the financial management at Putnam and there is now a very clear segregation of duties,” Ingram said. “We want our parents, students, partners, and staff to know that the problem we uncovered has been aggressively addressed and we will maintain close scrutiny.”
The release of the report was as controversial as the report itself. On Oct. 25, Rooke, who had requested the audit at the same time as Putnam’s new principal Gilbert Traverso, was scheduled to give the report to members of the press at a 4 p.m. meeting. Pikula blocked the release stating the School Committee had a 5 p.m. meeting at which they would vote in executive session to release the report. Pikula added they might not release it if they believed an additional investigation should be undertaken.
At 2 p.m. that day, Ingram had sent the press a memo stating the School Committee was going to release the audit and commented on it. The press release could not be published until 6 p.m.
Rooke had not been informed that Ingram, who was invited to Rooke’s meeting along with Sarno and the School Committee, had taken this action.
School Committee Antonette Pepe said the School Committee, the mayor and the superintendent must share in the responsibility. She thanked Traverso and Rooke for the actions they took.
She charged the person who delayed the release of the report was Sarno and the only reason the mayor released the report now was because of Rooke’s efforts to make it public.
Pepe has been the member of the School Committee who has been assigned to Putnam and said, “It has been completely out of control.”
“I’ve been complaining about the school for so long but it fell on deaf ears,” she said.
Pepe noted there are still situations in the city’s schools that need to be addressed.
“I’m very, very concerned about the on-going problem of people leaving [work] without taking a sick day or a personal day,” she said.
She asserted the problem extends to other city departments including the mayor’s office.
Pepe said there have been retaliations against teachers and other staff members who have complained about situations they saw as illegal or unethical.
“There is no protection in my eyes for a whistle-blower,” she said.