By Steve Estes
Terminate county’s top administrators
A Monroe County Grand Jury has suggested that the county’s two top administrators be terminated for their part in the iPhone/iPad theft scandal.
Long-time county employee Lisa Druckemiller was indicted by that same grand jury for theft in connection with more than $20,000 in misappropriated consumer electronics.
According to the investigative report, Druckemiller would purchase cell phones and iPads on the county’s purchasing program, using county funds, and never log them into the county’s system, instead selling the units for cash to family, friends and fellow employees.
One of the fellow employees that purchased several devices is County Administrator Roman Gastesi, and the grand jury report recommends that Gastesi be terminated for those purchases.
The report also recommends terminating Deputy County Administrator Debbie Frederick, who was Druckemiller’s immediate supervisor and, the report says, in the best position to be aware of the ongoing thefts by the former technical services head.
The grand jury also suggests that Frederick did not bring Druckemiller’s issues to light in an earlier episode when the latter charged several thousands of dollars against the former’s credit card allegedly without permission.
In the grand jury report, Gastesi was chastised for not implementing a stricter tracking program for inventory and control of consumer electronics. County policy only required that items over $1,000 in value be tracked, and the stolen items didn’t meet that threshold.
The grand jury investigation discovered that in all 52 items had been purchased and weren’t accounted for in county inventory.
Gastesi wasn’t the only county employee that purchased the stolen items from Druckemiller. The latter’s subordinate Hank Kokenzie was the recipient of three iPads and two iPhones for $1,750, a cost to the county of nearly $3,300. Budget Director Tina Boan paid $129 for an iPhone which cost the county $400.
County Commissioner Heather Carruthers paid $100 for a $400 iPhone. The latter two paid by personal check. County wastewater enginner Liz Wood also purchased an iPhone for $200 which cost the county $300.
Some of the stolen merchandise has since been returned to the county as part of the investigation.
Druckemiller testified that she began the misappropriation program in late 2009 or early 2010 when Gastesi gave her money to purchase two iPhones for his children.
Gastesi says that Druckemiller approached him and he knew that public employee discounts were common in other areas and purchased the phones for cash. Witnesses stated that Gastesi told other employees that Druckemiller could get the discounted phones, but he denies that accusation.
In its report the grand jury stated, “We are of the opinion that most people who purchased iPhones and iPads from Druckemiller should have known that something was amiss. The combination of the low price, cash payment, and the lack of a receipt should have prompted all but the most credulous purchases to question the propriety of these deals.”
“The days of cash sales for expensive consumer electronics are long gone—unless you are buying items that fell off the back of the proverbial truck,” the report said.
“We believe county employees who availed themselves of these deals deserve greater censure…are generally familiar with how public money and public property is accounted for,” stated the report.
The grand jury stopped short of indicting Druckemiller’s buyers on criminal charges, even though the report said that the consensus was that buyers should have known the deals were too good to be true.
The grand jury said that it didn’t indict because it felt some of the buyers actually were naïve enough to believe the products were genuine, but said that most engaged in “willful blindness.”
The grand jury suggests that the county do away with providing iPhones and iPads for employees who need them for their jobs and instead offer a stipend to employees who use the devices to cover some of the costs for service.
The report points out that personal use of the devices was rampant, and that overage charges for data and text usage were commonplace.
But the grand jury came down hard on Gastesi.
“In sum, we believe…Gastesi’s actions warrant his dismissal. His first error in judgment was rejecting the auditor’s recommendations to institute a separation of duties. Gastesi eagerly availed himself of at least four cut-rate iPhones and one cut-rate iPad…paying only $899 for items that cost the county taxpayers $2,329.”
…”the county administrator, who sits atop the organization and should set the standard for probity, should have steered clear of these sweetheart deals….his poor personal example fostered a permissive environment—a culture of entitlement if you will—in which it was acceptable for county employees to avail themselves of special discounts not available to the public at large.”
“In our view, the deplorable personal example he set for his subordinates merits special condemnation. Moreover, Gastesi personally benefited from a theft he could have prevented. He should be dismissed.”
The report suggests that Kokenzie, a member of the county’s information technology department, merits special condemnation as well but stops short of suggesting he be terminated.
But the members of the Board of County Commissioners don’t seem to be disposed to follow the grand jury’s recommendations.
“Had I been a member of that grand jury, I would probably have come up with everything they did,” said Commissioner Sylvia Murphy. “But I have to look at the overall effect on Monroe County. I will not be following the grand jury’s recommendations.”
The BOCC will discuss the grand jury report at a Sept. 10 budget meeting.
“The report generates as many questions as it does answers,” said Commissioner George Neugent. “It’s a very complex issue, and we have other information that leads us to believe that the incident did not rise to the level of criminal charges for anyone other than Druckemiller. We aren’t even sure that county policy was broken.”
That those involved in purchasing the equipment were “very foolish” Neugent says there is little doubt. “But we have to take the emotion out and deal with the facts. We’ll do that Sept. 10.”
Gastesi said he plans to recommend to the commission that the county get out of the business of providing expensive computer electronics to employees and instead go with the stipend program.