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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 23, 2006
Supers spending is questioned, again
By Rachel Dutil
VOORHEESVILLE For the second time this year, the state comptrollers office is accusing Alan McCartney, the former superintendent of schools for Voorheesville, of paying himself inappropriately.
In January, Comptroller Alan Hevesi said that McCartney and another administrator had inappropriately paid themselves $216,000 for leave and other employment benefits.
Thursday, the comptrollers office released a report saying McCartney charged nearly $12,000 for personal expenses to the school district in the two years before his July 15, 2005 retirement.
McCartney, the report says, used the district credit card to pay for more than $300 worth of entertainment at a downtown Albany strip club, and charged $770 for meals in a single day, and made 10 overnight stays at a casino.
McCartney reimbursed the district for about $600 of expenses, including his charges from the strip club, the report says.
The report recommends the district adopt policies and procedures to better track and screen spending. Superintendent Linda Langevin says many of the recommendations have already been implemented.
Robert Baron, who was president of the school board during the audited period, told The Enterprise that McCartney answered the moral issue of charging strip club entertainment to the school district by repaying it.
"Obviously, he didn’t feel it was proper to charge it to the district because he reimbursed the district," he said.
This audit focused on the records of senior-level officials, said Jennifer Freeman, a spokesperson from Hevesis office. Two other district administrators were implicated. (See related story.)
Hevesi has himself come under fire for using a state worker as a chauffeur for his wife. Just before his re-election on Nov. 7, the state ethics commission found he had likely violated state law. After the matter became public, Hevesi paid back about $83,000 and later put $90,000 into escrow.
The first audit of the Voorheesville school district was started in August, 2005. It was part of a statewide initiative to audit all school districts in the state, after a series of scandals on Long Island.
The results of the first audit were announced in January of 2006, and found that McCartney and former assistant superintendent for business, Anthony Marturano, inappropriately paid themselves $216,000.
Albany County District Attorney David Soares’ office found that there was no basis to prosecute the two retired administrators. Soares said the school district’s "weak internal controls" are what likely led to the problems.
The school board felt differently. At the press conference in January where Hevesi made his accusations, Joseph Pofit, the school board president at the time who later lost his re-election bid, said the board was "outraged" the former officials would purposely manipulate people and internal controls to enrich themselves. The board proceeded with civil suits it had filed in January against the men in an attempt to recoup the money. The case is still in litigation.
Now that this new information has been made available, the case is under review, said Rachel McEneny, the spokesperson for Soares’ office. "It will go to the Public Integrity Unit of this office," she told The Enterprise this week.
The comptrollers office, through its audit, says it found a number of questionable expenses that the former superintendent charged to the district.
"The Board did not have an adequate system of internal controls in place to ensure that payments for employee benefits were authorized and accurate," the report says.
"We question about $11,600 of the $25,000 in claims and charges submitted by the former Superintendent for a lack of adequate documentation and excessive and personal expenses. However, we had no significant findings with the claims submitted by the former Assistant Superintendent," the report says of Marturano.
Baron said that because the school district went ahead with the civil suits so quickly after the first audit was released, it inadvertently broke down the lines of communication with the former administrators .
"Once you raise the stakes so high, it just kills the communication," he said.
Marturano, who retired in 2002 and moved to Florida, told The Enterprise this week that he was surprised that these findings have come up.
"The man I know was a dedicated educator, who loved kids," he said. "He was a great educator and a great boss."
Calls made to McCartney by The Enterprise were not returned this week.
Baron said that in his time as president of the school board from July, 2003 through June, 2005 the board had "a good working relationship with Dr. McCartney."
"He helped establish the reputation of the school," Baron said.
The school board did not see expense reports, he said. Those went through the business office. As long as everything looked proper to the people in the office, he said, the expenses got paid.
The audit report states, "District officials informed us that they did not feel they could question the former Superintendent’s claims."
Langevin told The Enterprise that she is not sure if officials within the district may have been intimidated by McCartney. She did say, though, that the school board meetings were different with him, than they are now with her. She said that no one is reluctant now to ask her any questions.
Baron said that the business officials in the district are strong individuals who would have questioned something that they felt was improper.
The auditors state that the district’s travel policy during the period being audited "was vague and non-specific." The policy provided for reimbursement of "reasonable out-of-pocket expenses incurred while traveling for school related activities."
All school district employees are now required to fill out a conference and workshop request, approval and expense voucher, which summarizes expenses for a single purpose, said Langevin.
At the time that McCartney was superintendent, though, only teachers filled them out, said the current Assistant Superintendent for Business Sarita Winchell.
Because these forms were not available to the auditors, the audit was more difficult to perform, the report says.
The report claims that McCartney traveled for conferences to Syracuse seven times, three of which "the sponsoring associations purportedly holding the meetings told us that they had no record of any meetings on these dates."
Costs to the district for these meetings including meals and mileage totaled $1,100.
Baron said that McCartney worked on several different subcommittees, and a lot of them met in Syracuse.
"Just because he didn’t have a conference, doesn’t mean he didn’t have a subcommittee meeting," Baron said in his former colleague’s defense.
Baron said that it is important in this case to not rush to judgement. "We’re only getting one side," he said.
The audit report details trips that McCartney made where, it says, mileage was reimbursed that wasnt traveled, and where he stayed in hotels that were miles out of the way.
Meal reimbursements were paid totaling over $4,200, and it was not documented why the meal was business-related and who attended, the report says.
In one such trip, to Rochester, N.Y. for a conference, McCartney, along with three board members, charged $600 for one meal, and $170 for another meal on the same day. Federal reimbursement rates warrant $47 per person per day for Rochester, which totals $188 per day for the four school officials, the report says.
Baron said that he was not among the attending board members on this trip. He agreed that it is a lot of money to spend for four people to eat for one day.
He said, though, that he would like to know more facts, like were there more than four people who ate with Mccartney.
McCartney also used the district credit card for 10 overnight stays at a casino in Vernon, NY. The charges for the stays cost nearly $1,300, including meals. On one occasion, McCartney stayed at the casino when, according to the audit report, "it appeared to be in the District’s best interest for him to stay closer to the event."
McCartney also charged $220 for travel expenses to attend a meeting with companies with which the district did not do business, the report says.
He charged $1,286 for 28 people to attend a retirement party, and seven attendees reimbursed the district $360, the report says. He also made personal donations to charities of $800, reimbursing only $150, it says.
"It’s a very difficult situation the school district is in," Baron told The Enterprise.
The district has responded to recommendations made by the comptrollers office.
Basic internal controls within the district have been tightened. "Nothing is concentrated to one person," Winchell said.
The district has hired a claims auditor and an internal auditor; both report directly to the board. The claims auditor checks every pay-out, Winchell said. The internal auditor, she said, assesses risk regarding security of the system.
Both auditors make recommendations to the board on actions to be taken in specific circumstances, Winchell said.
It has also established an Audit Committee, which has been meeting since the summer, and reviews financial reports from the claims and internal auditors, said Superintendent Linda Langevin.
Advisory Solutions has been hired to act as a consultant to the district to ensure that all internal controls are put into place, she said.
Langevin, who succeeded McCartney as superintendent, said that she herself completes forms for expenses as any other employee would.
"I’m very closely watched," she said.
Board members are required to attend five sessions of fiscal accountability training, Langevin said. It is a requirement for the three board members who are new since 2005 David Gibson, Kevin Kroenke, and Gary Hubert, she said.
In a response submitted by board president Gibson to the Office of the State Comptroller on behalf of the school board, he said: "The District recognizes that certain internal controls were not previously adopted because of a long-term and trusting relationship among the Board, its Superintendent, and the District staff. While in some cases the trust was violated, it is important to note that in most circumstances that trust was not misplaced."
The comptroller’s office responded to this statement saying: "Quite clearly trust was misplaced and violated. But more importantly, government organizations should utilize good internal controls, including appropriate checks and balances and governing board oversight, rather than personal trust, to safeguard taxpayers."
In an explanation of Gibsons statement, Langevin told The Enterprise that McCartney was a good superintendent, and he did good things for the district.
"We separate the two things," Langevin said of McCartney’s contributions as an educator, contrasted with the allegations of his inappropriate spending.
In its formal response to the comptroller’s office, the school board said that it "is reviewing and considering how to pursue collection of personal expenses the former Superintendent has not already reimbursed, through litigation."
The board will, at its December board meeting, accept the Federal reimbursement rates, with the exception of package-deal rates, Langevin said. It will also set a maximum reimbursement rate for lodging.
Now, at Voorheesville, reimbursements will not be given unless employees follow board policy, the response states. Travel expenses will be reviewed by the claims auditor and accepted by the board as a regular agenda item. The audit committee will review the superintendents travel expenses and refer any questionable expenses to the board.
Langevin said that she must sign off on all payroll records and expense reimbursements; anything she is uncomfortable with, she refers to the auditor.
"The OSC audit has been a benefit to the district," Langevin told The Enterprise, implying that the districts internal controls needed to be addressed. She added that everyone within the district has been very cooperative.
After audit, district backs Winchell and Goyer
By Rachel Dutil
VOORHEESVILLE The school district here is standing behind two administrators implicated in an audit released last week by the Office of the State Comptroller.
In its second audit of the district, the comptroller’s office, found that Sarita Winchell, assistant superintendent for business, was paid $8,425 for unused leave and $5,575 in tuition reimbursement; and Michael Goyer, transportation supervisor, was paid $2,105 for unused leave, and received an "improper gift" of an all-expenses-paid trip to Tulsa, Okla.
According to the office of Alan Hevesi, the state comptroller, Winchell was "inappropriately paid," and Goyer was paid money to which "he was not entitled."
School board president David Gibson responded to the comptroller on Sept. 12 that Goyers trip to Tulsa was in-service training and not a gift.
Gibson also wrote that Winchell took courses necessary for her post, supported by the board, and that she relied on approval from the former superintendent and board president for the vacation pay.
The board of education stands behind the two officials, and both will remain working for the school district, said Superintendent Linda Langevin.
"Sarita Winchell and Mike Goyer are very dedicated and loyal," said former board president Robert Baron. Baron served as board president from July, 2003 to June, 2005, the period covered by the recent audit.
Baron said that the school district and the board should stand behind the two administrators.
Winchell worked as the districts treasurer from 1979 until 2002, she is now the assistant superintendent for business. Winchell says her job is multi-faceted and exciting. Goyer, the transportation, operations, and maintenance supervisor, says he tries to stay well educated on the design and safety features of school buses.
The former superintendent, Alan McCartney, was implicated in an earlier audit as well as the current audit. (See related story.) The current audit states that McCartney "was able to override or disregard internal controls and provide benefits to employees without proper authorization from the Board."
Michael Goyer has been the transportation supervisor for the past 10 years. He supervises 56 staff members between two departments transportation, and operations and maintenance.
In his position as supervisor, Goyer said, "It has been my pleasure to provide students and staff with the safest possible transportation and a clean, safe, and healthy environment."
Part of his job, he said, is to be well informed about school bus design and safety. He has visited multiple bus factories and distributor facilities in North Carolina, Ontario, Quebec, and Oklahoma.
"Trips to school bus manufacturing facilities are considered professional development and are accepted in school districts in the State of New York," Goyer told The Enterprise.
As is pointed out in the audit, the General Municipal Law for New York State "prohibits District officials from receiving gifts having a value of $75 or more whether in the form of money, service, loan, travel, entertainment, etc."
Goyers trip to an International School Bus manufacturing plant in Tulsa was an overnight trip in February sponsored by a regional sales vendor and distributor.
Goyer said that the plant had just opened in an old airplane factory.
"This was the first bus manufacturing facility where buses were constructed from beginning to end on the same manufacturing line," Goyer said.
There were several other transportation supervisors from other districts who traveled with Goyer to visit the plant, and meet with the vice president of International Bus, he said.
"This allowed us to voice our approvals and concerns over design changes and features we felt would make our nation’s school buses safer," Goyer said.
Goyer said he felt the trip was a learning experience allowing him to see if the new bus design "would provide the safest means of transportation for the children of our school district."
The auditor said that the trip as a guest of a vendor was "in direct violation of the law and good business practices."
Goyer told The Enterprise that he is aware of the law regarding the acceptance of gifts. "I do not consider a professional development experience that educates me on the construction of school buses a gift," he said.
Baron told The Enterprise that Goyer went to Tulsa on behalf of the school district to improve his education on new buses.
The school board agrees. In the board’s response to the auditor, President David Gibson wrote, " The Board takes exception to OSC’s finding that the trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma by the Supervisor was a gift to the District or its employees" The trip for the Supervisor was considered in-service education and training by the Board. It supported this initiative as furthering District purposes."
He also says, though, that in the future, such in-service training will be included in vendor contracts or the district will pay for such a trip to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
The comptrollers office also notes that subsequent to Goyers trip, the district agreed to purchase buses from the Tulsa company that cost more than those available through state contract.
Gibson asserts that the board approved the bus purchases prior to the trip but the comptrollers office responds that the boards minutes do not contain any such approval.
"The March 17, 2003 minutes (more than a month after the supervisor’s trip) contain a resolution authorizing the purchase of school buses for $246,000, pending voter approval," writes the comptroller’s office.
"My role is to recommend buses to the district. We have purchased International Buses for many years" We annually choose International, which allows us to maintain a consistent, standardized fleet and bus parts program," Goyer told The Enterprise.
Goyer was also cited in the audit for being "improperly paid $2,105 for unused vacation leave."
In the 1998-99 school year, Goyer asked the former superintendent, McCartney, to be allowed to carry 12 unused vacation days into the following year, which resulted in Goyers having seven more vacation days than authorized for the 1999-2000 year, the report says. Goyer then asked McCartney to cash out 10 vacation days.
McCartney approved all of Goyers requests, and Goyer was paid $2,105, the report says.
"Before June 13, 2005, the policy allowed MC employees to carry forward up to five vacation days from a prior fiscal year into the next one, but it did not allow them to receive payments for unused vacation days," the audit report says.
That policy was updated on June 13, 2005, and now states that: "Up to ten days may be carried forward into the following year." The policy does not mention payments for unused vacation days.
Goyer also took four vacation days in 1999; three were in May and one in October. The days were not deducted from his leave balances.
Goyer said that he went through the proper procedure at the time for his vacation days. "I submitted to the district a vacation leave request that was approved by my immediate supervisor, Dr. Anthony Marturano. A procedural error occurred and the daily attendance sheets that were sent to the district office for these days did not have my name on them as being on vacation," he said.
At the time, the payroll clerk was the only person who reviewed these records, Langevin told The Enterprise. She also indicated that the leave was for Goyers wedding.
Goyer said he now must fill out the vacation request form, and enter his leave time on a daily attendance sheet. He said he also maintains and submits a monthly Administrator Daily Leave and Conference Report to the Superintendent.
Sarita Winchell took over the position of assistant superintendent for business after the retirement of Anthony Marturano in August of 2002.
Baron said that the school board accepted Marturanos retirement in December of 1999. The board had nearly three years to find a replacement, he said.
Sarita Winchell, then treasurer, stepped up to fill Marturanos post.
Everyone knew that she would need to take training courses to become an administrator, Baron said.
A masters degree and 30 hours of education administration courses are required to be a certified school business administrator, Winchell told The Enterprise.
When she left her job as treasurer, she had the masters degree, but needed to fulfill the additional course requirements, she said.
The audit report states that Winchell was paid $8,425 for unused vacation leave "to which she was not entitled." The board’s policy for those in managerial/confidential (MC) post, did not authorize covered employees to receive payments for unused leave. Winchell cashed in 46.5 days of unused vacation leave that she earned as treasurer.
It would be wrong to take away her vacation days because she got a new job, Baron said. The board cashed out her vacation days at her treasurer position rate of pay, he said.
The position of treasurer is classified as managerial/confidential; the school business official position is classified as administrative.
Managerial/Confidential employees accumulate vacation time at the end of the school year for use in the following year; administrative employees are credited with their vacation time at the beginning of the school year for use that year.
When Winchell was promoted, the district said in response to the audit, the board agreed to cash out the time that she earned as treasurer, at that rate of pay, and credit her with the appropriate vacation time for the administrative position.
"It was fair to the taxpayers and to Sarita Winchell," Baron said. You can’t even second-guess her honesty, he said.
The board is not seeking any reimbursements for unused vacation time cashed out to Winchell.
For the first year of her job as the assistant superintendent, Winchell did not have a formal employment agreement, and cashed out 10 vacation days per year, as she had done as treasurer. When the board came to an employment agreement, only five days were allowed to be cashed out for the year in which she did not have a contract.
Gibson said in his board response, "To ensure the proper retroactive contract implementation, the employee voluntarily has now relinquished the equivalent of five (5) days earned from accruals."
"I always wanted to do what is the right thing to do," Winchell told The Enterprise this week. "It was never a problem for me," she said.
Also, the report found that the board did not authorize tuition reimbursement for MC employees in any approved employment contract or policy, the former treasurer received $5,575 in tuition reimbursements for the classes she took to earn her school business administrator certificate.
Gibson, in his response from the board to the comptroller’s office said that, though the board did not properly document, through board resolution, its intent was "to direct the Treasurer to obtain the necessary graduate level courses to become a School Business Official and to pay for those courses on the same basis it paid other school administrators who took graduate level coursework."
The board is not seeking any reimbursement from Winchell for her tuition expenses.
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