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Erie County comptroller agrees to return documents

A tentative deal was reached Tuesday for the Erie County comptroller to return confidential documents that his office seized in the course of an audit of the Department of Social Services.

Earlier in the day, Deputy County Executive Richard M. Tobe had alleged during a hearing of the Legislature’s Government Affairs Committee that the documents were obtained by the deputy comptroller through subterfuge three months ago. Tobe threatened a lawsuit if the documents were not immediately returned.

At a subsequent news conference, County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz reiterated Tobe’s charge and also demanded that the Comptroller’s Office return the documents.

“My office continues to be willing to work with the comptroller in any audit that he does. I demand, though, demand the return of the documents that were stolen by the Comptroller’s Office from the sub-basement,” Poloncarz said.

The confidential documents in question were seized in March by Deputy Comptroller Teresa M. Fraas from a storage area in the subbasement of the Rath County Office Building. The seizure took place while the Comptroller’s Office was in the midst of an audit of the Department of Social Services and how its workers went about recertifying participants in the county’s Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families programs.

Two months later, Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw revealed that social services workers had been improperly disposing of reams of sensitive documents in unlocked totes and had left them unsecured at the curb for pickup.

Among those records were copies of birth certificates, personal medical records, Social Security numbers, bank accounts, tax returns, inmate records, payroll information, court records and passports, the comptroller said.

He added that the unsecured disposal of the documents exposed county residents, who had applied to the county for benefits, to the prospect of identity theft.

Administration officials have acknowledged that social services workers were disposing of sensitive documents in unlocked totes, but Tuesday they insisted that the documents seized by Fraas were not in an unsecured area.

During the Legislature’s Government Affairs Committee meeting, Tobe shared with lawmakers surveillance video of Fraas accessing the subbasement of the Rath Building and retrieving the documents with the assistance of James L. Duman, a worker assigned to the Department of Buildings and Grounds.

Tobe also presented lawmakers a sworn affidavit from Duman, who said the area from which the documents were taken was locked.

“Based on his testimony – his affidavit testimony that was presented before the Legislature today – Ms. Fraas did not stumble upon a confidential document tote in an unsecured location, but it was in a secure location, and she basically created a half-truth saying that she was looking for a tote that had confidential comptroller documents in it,” Poloncarz said at his news conference.

“They took those documents without the approval of the Department of Social Services,” Poloncarz added.

Fraas, who attended the Legislature committee meeting with Mychajliw, disputed assertions that the area from which the documents were taken was secured.

Meanwhile, Tobe and Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert-Maurer took members of the local news media on a tour of the subbasement area from which they said the documents were taken.

Mychajliw, who met with County Attorney Michael Siragusa after Tuesday’s committee meeting, later said an agreement was reached that the comptroller would return the tote full of sensitive documents to the area of the subbasement where they were seized.

Mark Cornell, a spokesman for Poloncarz, confirmed the Comptroller’s Office will continue to have access to documents under the original terms of a signed confidentiality agreement between the administration and the Comptroller’s Office.

Meanwhile, the comptroller Tuesday released an audit of the Social Services Department’s recertification process for those receiving benefits under the Needy Families and Medicaid programs.

The six-page audit concluded that it could not render an opinion on the adequacy of the department’s internal controls because the administration had denied the comptroller access to the department’s records.