Thursday, October 21, 2010

Former Ira town treasurer accused of stealing $404,000 in Vermont

Donald Hewitt, the former elected treasurer of the small Rutland County town of Ira, has been accused of embezzling $404,000 from the town and the town’s school accounts.

State Police Detective Sgt. Albert Abdelnour said Hewitt confessed to the crime after town officials questioned his accounts.Manchester attorney Robert Woolmington, hired by the town of 455 residents to represent its interests, said town officials became concerned when Hewitt failed to make assessed payments to the Rutland Southwest Supervisory Union. The school district sued Ira in 2009 to force the payment, Woolmington said, and town officials began a close scrutiny of Hewitt’s accounts.“He maintained his own books,” Woolmington said, “and it turned out they weren’t accurate.”Hewitt resigned when confronted with those findings, Abdelnour said. A subsequent audit by Gallagher, Flynn and Co., of Burlington, completed in July, established that slightly more than $404,000 was missing.Abdelnour estimated the annual budget for the town at about $500,000.Reached by phone Wednesday, Hewitt at first declined comment, saying “I don’t have anything to offer on it.” Later, however, he said he had gone to the town meeting in March and apologized for his conduct.Hewitt is due Dec. 13 in Vermont Superior Court in Rutland to answer felony embezzlement charges. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and a $500 fine.The Ira embezzlement is another instance of an apparent lack of financial oversight of government officials in Vermont:

• Kathy Lantagne, a former state employee and supervisor in the Newport office of the Department of for Children and Families, has been charged with embezzling $490,000 from 2004 to 2009 from a fund that provided help with burial costs and rent for the poor. She has pleaded not guilty to federal charges. Her sister, Deb Tuller, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and tax violations for her role in the crime.

• In Burlington, the administration of Mayor Bob Kiss spent some $17 million in public money in violation of state regulations to sustain Burlington Telecom without the knowledge of the City Council or the council members of the Board of Finance. That expenditure has led to a pending criminal investigation, a state audit of BT, a civil lawsuit in Chittenden Superior Court brought by taxpayers, and downgrades to the city’s, the airport’s and Burlington Electric Department’s credit ratings.

• In South Burlington, city officials were unaware for years that the city was underfunding the pension fund. Former City Manager Chuck Hafter apologized for the non-payments after Sanford Miller, newly hired as manager, notified the City Council in August that the fund was short nearly $9 million, plus the interest that would have been earned on the contributions had they been made on time. The result, city officials said in late summer, might be tax increases, layoffs or cuts in service.

In the Ira matter, Woolmington said town officials were “very disturbed” by Hewitt’s alleged misconduct.
“They obtained his resignation, they put in a new official, they took possession of the town records and commissioned the independent audit, they notified the police, and there is a lawsuit pending in Superior Court in Rutland to attach his assets,” Woolmington said. “It’s been a difficult ordeal for the public officials to deal with this, but they’ve done their job.” Ira Selectboard members did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Woolmington said the town made a claim on its insurance policy and received a partial payment of $346,000 for its losses. Abdelnour said because of the statute of limitations, his investigation covered only the past six years, but Woolmington said the audit accounted for the total missing from the entire time Hewitt served as auditor. Hewitt, 58, was unsure when that tenure began. “It’s been 30 years, anyway,” he said.
He said he and his wife will remain in their home “for the time being, or at least in the area.” Asked if it has been uncomfortable to face his neighbors or if they had been understanding, he said, “I don’t know if you can call it understanding. I haven’t experienced any animosity

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