Someone Stole $12,000 From Hartford’s Tax Office in 2007. No One Knows Who.
July 20, 2010
More than $12,000 in cash collected from Hartford taxpayers went missing during a six-month period from July 2007 through December 2007, and to this day the city has not figured out what happened to the money.
A 2008 investigation by Hartford’s chief auditor, Patrick Campbell, unearthed a scheme in which checks were being substituted for cash in a cashier’s box at the tax office. According to documents from a summer 2009 hearing, Campbell had documented four separate occasions involving the swaps in November 2007, adding up to several thousands of dollars. Three of those occasions are tied to a single cashier, Yordano Vasquez.
Campbell described how the rudimentary scheme worked at the hearing before the Department of Labor’s Board of Mediation and Arbitration. He said that in these four tax-office transactions, cash was replaced with mailed-in checks. So say someone came to pay $1,000 of their taxes. That payment is supposed to be logged and put into the cashier’s register. What Campbell found was that someone had taken mailed-in payments (presumably unlogged) and put them in the register (which contains the $1,000), taking out cash to balance the total. If a check for $500 was put into the register, $500 in cash could be taken out and the recorded balance would remain at $1,000.
The mediation board held hearings last May and June on the case of Vasquez’s supervisor, Vilma Rivera-Saez, who was fired on Aug. 4, 2008, for “serious acts of misconduct and/or gross negligence and extreme breach of her responsibility as a supervisory employee.” After being fired, Rivera-Saez filed a complaint with her union, which led to the hearings.
On the three occasions of shortages documented by Campbell, Rivera-Saez allegedly “closed out” Vasquez’s cashier box — reconciling the report with a computer record of the daily transactions — even though it was Vasquez’s responsibility to close his register out.
“Further proof of [Rivera-Saez’s] negligence is the fact that she ended up doing practically all of her subordinate employee’s duties but she never disciplined him for failing to do his work,” argued the city attorney in the hearings.
When “at least one taxpayer” complained that her $200 tax payment was not properly applied to her account — it had in fact been swapped out for cash — it was Rivera-Saez’s signature that was found on the check, says the city’s attorney.
“Did she overlook the fact that the endorsement was in her own handwriting? Was she trying to hide her previous wrongdoing?” he asks. “The City will never get an answer to these questions. However, the City does know for a fact that it was her responsibility as a supervisor to follow up and try to determine the cause of the problem.”
In its response, the attorney for Rivera-Saez’s union, the Hartford Municipal Employees Association, begins by saying Rivera-Saez denied “misappropriating” any funds, adding that the city offered no proof she took the money.
“The City terminated [Rivera-Saez] for stealing but it is unable to substantiate its claim,” writes the attorney.
Furthermore, the union attorney points out that Yordano Vasquez attended the same church as Lydia Rosario, the tax department head, and that he was engaged to be married to Rosario’s niece. Rosario was the only representative of the city to attend a meeting with then-Chief Operating Officer Lee Erdmann to discuss Rivera-Saez’s case, notes the union’s attorney.
“Looking for a scapegoat, Ms. Rosario simply blamed [Rivera-Saez] rather than her niece’s fiancé,” writes the union’s attorney. “The City has failed miserably in its feeble attempt to brand [Rivera-Saez] a thief.”
There was no proof, continues the union’s attorney, that the missing $12,000-plus had anything to do with Rivera-Saez, yet Erdmann based his decision to fire her partly on that shortage.
“No one at the hearing testified to a basis for holding [Rivera-Saez] responsible for $12,000 in cash shortages from July through December 2007,” writes the union’s attorney. “There is no competent evidence proving, by any standard, that [Rivera-Saez] is a thief. [Rivera-Saez] has consistently and adamantly denied this scurrilous allegation.”
With one dissenting opinion, the arbitration board found last December in Rivera-Saez’s favor — sort of. While it found Rivera-Saez “culpable for deficiencies” and “deserving of discipline,” it ruled that termination was “too harsh.”
Rivera-Saez was placed on “indefinite suspension” without back pay and/or benefits. She hasn’t returned to the tax office.
Tax Collector Marc Nelson, who was hired on the same day Rivera-Saez was fired, said he had no comment on any HR issues involving Rivera-Saez. But he said the audit report issued by Campbell on Oct. 25, 2008, guided his first months in his new job.
“I can tell you that since I was appointed I have used the audit report as a blueprint and road map to implement a wide range of policy changes and improvements, so that audit report was very important to me as I took over the duties of the tax office,” says Nelson.
Nelson notes that for the fiscal year that just ended on June 30, the three cashiers in the tax office were collectively short about $600 on collections of more than $250 million.
“I think it’s fair to say there have been tremendous improvements both in terms of policies and procedures,” Nelson says.
Campbell’s office is currently completing a new audit of the tax office, which should be ready in about two weeks, and Nelson says he’s optimistic the report will be favorable.
One of the three cashiers currently working in the tax office is Yordano Vasquez, whom Nelson says has his “full confidence.” Lydia Rosario, who was acting tax collector until Nelson was hired, is now a deputy director of finance.