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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Wallingford councilors study deeper probe into wood allegations

Second report may do the trick - Wallingford councilors study deeper probe into wood allegations

By Laurie Rich Salerno

(203) 317-2235  

— Many town councilors said Monday they will likely not vote for an independent investigation into allegations that Public Works employees mishandled town wood, after reading Personnel Director Terence Sullivan’s second report on the incident. “Do I think at this time I would go the next step and vote in favor of an official independent investigation? I would say no, not at this time,” said Councilor John Sullivan, a Democrat, one of the councilors who voted in favor of a second investigation in a 7-2 vote in May. “This was a much more in-depth investigation in my eyes — this level of detail is what I wanted.”

The 32-page report, with hundreds of pages of supporting documents, was made available to councilors on Friday afternoon. By Monday, all nine councilors had picked it up at Town Hall.

The report concluded that there was “no proof of any kind” to support allegations that town employees had taken town wood for profit or personal use or cut down healthy trees in town parks.

In January, Town Councilor Nicholas Economopoulos, a Democrat, asked the town to investigate instances of town wood being taken in town trucks to the private dumpsite of Public Works employee Randy Mangino. Mangino held an outside contract with the town’s Water Department to dispose of clean fill and debris, and said he was allowed by
Public Works Director Henry McCully to take wood the department had collected from trees damaged in an October snowstorm. McCully said he had misread Mangino’s contract and allowed him to take the wood, though the contract calls for Mangino to use his own truck, and wood does not strictly fall into the category of what he was contracted to haul.

The incident was ruled “an honest mistake” in a January report by Terence Sullivan, and the wood was reportedly returned. In May, Economopoulos reopened the issue in a presentation at a council meeting, and in June the council voted to have Sullivan do a second, more thorough investigation, with his report helping them determine whether to seek an independent investigation.

Councilors are slated to discuss the report at their next meeting, on Aug. 14. Only three votes are needed to trigger an independent investigation.

After reading the report, many councilors were particularly confused as to why William Comerford — a town resident who was investigating the incidents with Economopoulos— had not given evidence when asked to either by the personnel director or an inspector with the New Haven State’s Attorney’s office named Robert Sage.

Sage’s investigation was prompted by a letter from Public Works employee Mark Staszewski regarding “inappropriate and possibly criminal activity by certain employees of the DPW.” Staszweski’s second interview with the Personnel Department reflected these claims, saying that Public Works employees were “basically looking for wood to cut into smaller lengths for burning.” Staszewski did not mention this in his first interview with Terence Sullivan. None of the other 11 members of the Public Works Department interviewed corroborated his account.

Regarding Comerford, Councilor Tom Laffin, a Republican, said, “How is it possible that there’s such a passion towards getting to resolution, but then asked for evidence, they never give it to anybody?”

Councilor Craig Fishbein, a Republican, said that having the state’s attorney continue to investigate would be a thirdparty investigator and would mean the town wouldn’t have to hire anyone else to do the job.

“I’m looking to save the taxpayers’ funds — if a state investigator is asking for information, then a state investigator is a third party. Why not just put it in their lap?” Fishbein said.

Comerford, reached Monday, said he hadn’t been given a deadline by Sage, and intends to produce the evidence he said he has collected.

“Sage is going to get it all; I had no deadline to do this. I didn’t realize that someone was contacting him,” Comerford said.

He said he refused to supply Terence Sullivan with the information when asked because he questioned the personnel director’s ability and interest in performing an investigation into the topic, saying his first report was too thin, and that Comerford thought he would be able to find enough of his own evidence to proceed.

Terence Sullivan was on vacation Monday and could not be reached for comment.

Both council Chairman Robert F. Parisi, a Republican, and Councilor Jason Zandri, a Democrat, said Monday they’d like to study the report more closely before commenting.

Vincent Cervoni and Rosemary Rascati, the two Republican councilors who had originally voted against an investigation in May, said they were not surprised by the findings.

“This is much ado about nothing — I’ve said that from the beginning,” Cervoni said.

Rascati said that she agreed with the report — that after seeing Sullivan’s interviews with 26 people, she also felt there was not enough evidence to substantiate allegations.

She said her constituents would be happy to put the matter at rest, that they’ve been telling her, “This is ridiculous, that we shouldn’t spend any more money and time on this.”

Fishbein said the report still left him with questions that he would like to ask the personnel director.

“I don’t think all of my questions are answered,” Fishbein said of the questions councilors were allowed to submit for the inquest. “He doesn’t talk about who loaded the trucks.”

Fishbein had asked who loaded trucks with wood taken to Mangino’s property, but the report gives only the names of drivers, Public Works employees Mangino and John Manke.

Economopoulos, who instigated the investigation and is being sued for libel and defamation by Mangino because of his involvement with it, said he thinks that the fact that some of the facts waver in the report shows that there is something to his claims.

“My story from the report and from what I originally reported ... has not wavered. Yet, if you look at their stories, they have wavered considerably,” Economopoulos said Monday.

One example he uses is the addresses of the property Mangino listed as a dump site on his bid contract with the Water Department. He lists 1171 S. Broad St. on the contract, which is where Economopoulos found pallets of shrink-wrapped wood, but later said the address is actually 1173. Mangino says this was an error, and solicited a signed affidavit from the owner of 1171, Roland Clavet, saying that the wood is his, but Economopoulos said it’s one of many discrepancies found during the investigation.

“There’s just too many questions that weren’t answered,” Economopoulos said.

Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said the town would address questions that remain.

“Mr. Sullivan obviously spent a lot of time — I understand it’s close to 80 hours with the interview and review of things, so it sounds like a very thorough effort,” Dickinson said. “If there are other questions to be asked, they can be dealt with.”