Federal investigators are questioning Derby government officials past and present about how the city used grant money earmarked for the Sterling Opera House.
“I’ve been questioned about the Sterling Opera House by the Department of the Interior but it’s under investigation so I really can’t talk about it,” Mayor Anita Dugatto said Wednesday.
Last week two people from the federal Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Interior visited Derby City Hall to talk about a $150,000 grant the city received in 2013.
The Office of the Inspector General keeps an eye out for waste, fraud and mismanagement within the Department of the Interior and its programs.
The $150,000 grant to Derby came from the Department of the Interior.
“We cannot comment on ongoing cases,” Nancy K. DiPaolo, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, said in an email Thursday.
The federal government routinely conducts random audits to make sure money doled out through grants is used according to the terms of the grant, which are often very specific.
The Office of the Inspector General will also get involved if a complaint or allegation is received.
It’s unclear what specifically motivated the inspector general to show up in Derby last week.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-New Haven, announced Derby’s grant in 2013.
Then-Mayor Anthony Staffieri said the money would help with the interior renovation of the historic opera house on Elizabeth Street.
At the time, the Staffieri administration had embarked on an ambitious plan to see the Sterling Opera House, the interior of which is in shambles, transform into a cultural center.
The city was working with a firm who pegged the renovation price tag at $3 million to $4 million.
Dugatto unseated Staffieri as mayor in late 2013.
Sheila O’Malley was the Derby economic development director in 2013. She administered the $150,000 grant.
O’Malley said the feds talked to her about the grant last week, too.
The feds’ issue, O’Malley said, could be with the interior design that was first floated in 2011.
There are apparently questions as to whether that interior design jives with Department of Interior’s rules governing the grant, she said.
“The whole intent of that interior design was to qualify for state and federal tax credits,” O’Malley said. “I guess the parks service is now saying the design didn’t qualify or it isn’t up to their standards, and needed to be corrected.”
O’Malley also said the Staffieri administration did not use the $150,000 grant by the end of 2013.
“When I was there we were working off state and private grants, and we hadn’t touched the federal funding yet,” O’Malley said.
O’Malley said she thought an issue could be that Dugatto’s administration accessed the $150,000 grant without approval from the feds.
But that might not be Derby’s fault, O’Malley said.
The feds were supposed to have a new, automatic system in place that prevented the money from being accessed without a federal green light. The feds could also be trying to figure out how their own internal procedure failed.
“(The money) didn’t go into somebody’s pocket,” O’Malley said. “It’s in the city coffers.”
The Sterling Opera House questions were made public by Alderman Art Gerckens, who let the public know about the issue via Twitter on May 31.
There appears to be some sort of Investigation going on with regards to the Sterling Opera House. No details.— Art Gerckens (@AldermanArtG) May 31, 2016
Gerckens said he asked the mayor about the issue but was unable to find out more info.
Alderman Carmen DiCenso referred questions to the city’s corporation counsel, who did not return two messages for comment.
The Valley Indy ran O’Malley’s statements by the mayor, but she couldn’t elaborate.
“I don’t have all the details, so I’m really not comfortable talking about it,” Mayor Dugatto said.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. DeLauro’s office referred questions to the city and the Department of the Interior.
Valley Indy reporter Ethan Fry contributed to this report.