Monday, December 03, 2007

Are officials and others stealing taxpayers blind in Connecticut?

Long List Of Losses Only Starts At Laptops
Documents Detail State's Missing Items

By DAVE ALTIMARI And MATTHEW KAUFFMAN | Hartford Courant Staff Writers
December 2, 2007

A state employee made headlines over the summer when a computer containing 106,000 taxpayer Social Security numbers was stolen from his car during a weekend trip to Long Island.

But when a .45-caliber pistol vanished from the heavily guarded State Armory two months earlier, the incident got no public scrutiny. Neither did the theft of a laptop right from a judge's chambers, or the $1,800 missing from the cash register at the Department of Environmental Protection's bookstore.

Details of those losses are buried among stacks of missing-property forms filed by state agencies. Some of the documented losses are serious, such as the thousands of dollars in personal calls made on state cellphones, or the more than $21,000 stolen from patients at Cedarcrest Regional Hospital in Newington, or the checks stolen out of court files by a Bristol public defender.

Others are head scratchers, like the 55-pound dumbbells stolen from the Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield, or the four missing golf carts at the University of Connecticut, or the counterfeit $100 bills used by people to pay civil or criminal penalties at courthouses across the state.

Plenty of the losses involve computer equipment. A Courant review of the forms — which also document cases of stolen money and items — shows that the infamous tax department computer was just one of dozens of state-owned laptops lost or stolen in recent years, along with thousands of other items worth millions of dollars.

Exactly how much property is stolen or lost in a given year is hard to determine because some state agencies don't comply with the law that requires reporting such losses, according to State Auditors Kevin Johnston and Robert Jaekle, who also are supposed to get copies of the forms.

"Some agencies fill out their forms with the littlest information possible, while others just don't fill them out at all," Johnston said.

Sometimes, the auditors find out about losses only when a formal biannual audit is performed. That's how they learned, for example, of the two State Library employees who ran up $1,200 in bills on state-owned cellphones.

Brenda Halpin, director of the fiscal policy division in the comptroller's office, said her office determines the insurance implications of each reported loss and offers help to agencies looking to improve their financial safeguards. But she said she does not have the staff to track down agencies that are not filing the proper forms.

"The onus is on the agencies to provide that information to us," she said.

Halpin said that agencies should be aware of the law and that the comptroller's office recently sent a notice to all agencies, although it was the first formal reminder in a couple years.

Among the agencies that haven't filed the "CO-853" reports since at least 2003 is the comptroller's office itself. That isn't a surprise to Halpin, who said she's never heard of assets missing at the department.

"We're very good at keeping track of our stuff," she said.

Among the cases outlined in the state reports:

•The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services reported last year that an employee at Cedarcrest Hospital apparently siphoned more than $21,000 from the accounts of 58 patients. An internal audit found 143 transactions in which patients had requested withdrawals from their bank accounts, but more money than requested was taken out. The department has since instituted a policy in which the amount withdrawn from the bank must be reconciled against the patient's original request form. The case was turned over to the state police and an arrest is expected, according to internal department documents.

•Three Superior Court judges' computers have been lost or stolen since 2005. Judge Theodore Tyma left his computer on a Metro-North train; another was stolen from the trunk of Judge Susan Peck's car in Hartford; the third was taken out of the chambers of Rockville Superior Court Judge Samuel H. Teller in 2005 while he was on vacation. None of the computers has been found. Judicial officials said that Teller's laptop may have contained some confidential information regarding complex litigation cases but that the files were password protected.

•Judicial officials reported $461 was stolen last December from a locked cabinet in the offices of the chief court administrator, located in the Supreme Court building in Hartford. To catch the suspect, the Supreme Court police put cash into the cabinet and set up a video camera. Records indicate that, as a result, Kenneth Milillo, a custodian for the department, was arrested on larceny charges and was fired. His case is pending.

•State officials arrested three people in connection with the theft of more than $100,000 earmarked for the care of a boy with Down syndrome. One of those arrested was the boy's mother, Norma Johnson of Manchester. She had a contract with the state Department of Mental Retardation, now the Department of Developmental Services, to serve as a caretaker for her son. Such contracts, called Individual Service Agreements, allow department clients to live at home with a caretaker who oversees their finances and care. In 2005, department officials received information that Johnson had made questionable expenditures using funds from her son's individual savings account. The case was turned over to the chief state's attorney's office, who received help from Steven Johnson, Norma's ex-husband. As a result, authorities charged Norma Johnson with first-degree larceny and fraud. Investigators said Johnson had paid thousands of dollars in "nursing fees" to a friend, Danielle McNally, who wasn't a registered nurse, and thousands more to Pamela Evans, another friend, for phantom care. Norma Johnson reported that Evans had taken care of her son on weekends when the boy was actually spending time with Steven Johnson, the investigators found. The two women were giving Johnson kickbacks from the illegal payments they were receiving. McNally and Evans also were arrested on larceny charges. All three women have pleaded guilty. DMR officials said the incident forced them to perform audits on all ISA accounts.

•Department of Environmental Protection officials were forced to close the department bookstore because of a "discrepancy" of more than $1,800 in the store's receipts earlier this year. During a routine audit, DEP officials discovered that the money was unaccounted for, and the employee in charge of running the bookstore was fired, according to DEP spokesman Dennis Schain. DEP officials stopped short of saying the money was stolen, but the store is now run by the DEP finance department. It was closed for two weeks so an inventory could be taken. The store records about $100,000 in sales annually.

•Last April, the Office of the Chief Public Defender reported that a Bristol public defender, James Sward, apparently had stolen money clients gave him to pay restitution to victims. Sward, who pleaded no contest to the charges last month, was accused of pocketing thousands of dollars that was supposed to pay for damage from vandalism and car crashes. Prosecutors say he kept the money and tampered with court files to repeatedly postpone the cases — including one for five years — without the knowledge of prosecutors and judges. Sward was sentenced to three years of probation and agreed to give up his law license. The public defender's office was forced to hire an outside attorney to represent clients whose files Sward handled.

•An inspector in Superior Court in Waterbury and a social work aide with the Department of Children and Families each ran up more than $5,000 in personal phone calls on their state-issued cellphones in 2005 and 2006. The inspector reimbursed the agency and the state police determined no crime was committed. The case aide quit and the department dropped the investigation.

Johnston said auditors review the loss forms to see if there are any trends or possible security issues. They prepare a report every month for the governor's office to review.

"I'm not sure what they use them for, but I would hope that they help paint a picture of security systems or lack of security systems at different state agencies," Johnston said.

By law, if a state agency suspects that property was stolen they are supposed to call in the state police to investigate.

Military officials did so in the case of the missing .45-caliber pistol, and an investigation is underway, according to state police Lt. Paul Vance.

The gun apparently disappeared on a day officers from the state's Military Department were headed to the gun range to requalify as marksmen. The arms vault at the State Armory was unlocked, and some of the 645 9mm and .45-caliber pistols stored in it were removed for the lieutenants and sergeants to use.

When military officials did a standard inventory in June 2007, they discovered one of the .45s was missing.

State police detectives entered the serial number of the missing gun into a national database in case it gets used in a crime or is discovered by another police department. They also have been interviewing "anyone who may have touched this gun at all" before it disappeared, Vance said.

Military officials have made changes in how they guard their guns, although they declined to discuss them in detail for security reasons. But on the CO-853 form military officials filed with the state, they informed the comptroller they were hiring a "weapons responsible manager" who will have sole access to the gun cages. They also will hire an independent inventory team to do an annual gun audit.

"We made some changes in regards to the physical security aspect," spokesman Lt. John Whitford said. "We are taking steps to make sure that this doesn't happen again."

Contact Dave Altimari at

Copyright © 2007, The Hartford Courant


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