A majority of the Derby Board of Aldermen Thursday ordered the city’s corporation counsel to prepare a written report detailing how a clerk in the tax collector’s office was able to “damage” the city to the tune of $9,000.
The employee, Katherine Kulhawik, resigned her position in August and agreed to pay the city $9,000 in “damages,” according to a deal worked out between the city and Kulhawik and approved by the Board of Aldermen.
Kulhawik was accused of mishandling cash tax payments and “manipulating data” regarding tax payments. The city attorney has repeatedly made it a point to stress the word “damages” and not “theft.”
Kulhawik was one of four city hall scandals in the lower Naugatuck Valley in 2012.
However, compared to neighboring towns, Derby officials were more tight-lipped about what exactly happened. Discussions about the incident were held in private, executive session meetings.
Contrast that to Ansonia, where the city’s tax collector resigned after a Valley Indy investigation revealed she was giving DMV car tax clearances to people who had not paid their car taxes.
Ansonia released an internal investigation and then turned it over to a prosecutor to see if criminal charges are warranted. The Ansonia Aldermen also had several public meetings where they discussed reforms to the tax office.
In Oxford, the former tax collector was sentenced to four years in prison for stealing $243,902 from tax payers. In addition to calling in state police, town officials also set up a series of committees who met in public over the course of two years to enact reforms for the tax office.
In Shelton, the city requested an outside law enforcement agency — the state police — investigate their finance department after accusing an employee of misappropriating $348,416.
However, in the case of the ex-Derby clerk, an outside investigative agency was not contacted and a formal report was never prepared.
Joseph Coppola, the city’s corporation counsel, conducted Derby’s investigation. He apparently provided a verbal report to the Aldermen during an executive session earlier this year.
The only public document released after Coppola’s investigation was the “separation agreement” the Aldermen approved in August. However, that document does not provide much detail on what allegedly transpired other than general statements about “data manipulation.”
During last Thursday’s Aldermen meeting, Alderman Art Gerckens asked Coppola to supply the board with something in writing.
Gerckens said the amount of “damage” to the city has changed and that the public has a right to know what happened.
“I feel there should be written documentation about how this investigation went down,” Gerckens said.
Coppola took the opposite view, saying putting his report in writing could reveal “sensitive program reviews” that should be withheld from the public. He indicated residents who owe taxes could come forward and try to get out of paying the money owed.
“To put that in writing, I don’t think would be beneficial to the board or anyone else,” Coppola said.
He also said a written report on what transpired inside the tax office would only raise more questions he doesn’t want to answer in public.
“I just don’t feel comfortable giving you a report that would be open to the review of the public,” Coppola said.
Gerckens responded by saying the public is “clamoring” for information on what happened and how the city investigated itself.
Click the video to watch the exchange between Gerckens and Coppola. The article continues after the video.
Alderman Carmen DiCenso said members of the public are asking him how much money was stolen from the tax office. Coppola did not provide DiCenso with a specific answer, but pointed out his investigation makes no mention of theft.
Alderman Stephen Iacuone said the public is owed an explanation about what happened.
“What’s in question is being able to give an answer to the public as to what happened,” Iacuone said.
Click the video below to watch comments from DiCenso, Coppola, Gerckens, Iacuone and Mayor Anthony Staffieri.
Kulhawik paid $5,000 to Derby in September. Had she not made that first $5,000, Derby would have filed an official complaint with law enforcement, according to her deal with the city.
She has been making monthly payments on the remaining $4,000.
Kulhawik was escorted out of Derby City Hall June 25, after her supervisor, Derby Tax Collector Denise Cesaroni, discovered a “pattern of voids” regarding cash payments from taxpayers.
The internal investigation started June 19, after Cesaroni discovered a Derby resident had paid her car tax in cash and was given a receipt — but the transaction was then voided and the cash could not be found.
Clerks searched the office trash looking for the money, but could not find it.
Gerckens and the four Democrats on the Board of Aldermen voted for a written report. The four Republicans voted against it.
Several sources have told the Valley Indy the Aldermen opted for Kulhawik to pay them “damages” instead of filing a formal complaint with police because they didn’t have enough evidence against her.