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Wheatfield recreation director faces hearing over missing money

WHEATFIELD – Town Recreation Director Edward Sturgeon, who was suspended from his job in June by the Town Board, will face a disciplinary hearing on charges of mismanagement of the funds generated by the Fairmount Park concession stand.

His attorney, Charles J. Naughton, said the board is looking for ammunition to fire Sturgeon. Town Attorney Robert O’Toole said the board would receive recommendations from the hearing officer on what to do with Sturgeon, who has been in office for nine years.

The State Comptroller’s Office said that $1,639 in cash from the snack stand could not be found in its audit of the stand’s operations from 2009 through June 5 of this year.

Naughton said Sturgeon is not accused of stealing the money, but rather of mismanaging how it was handled.

The disciplinary hearing has yet to be scheduled. When it is held, the Town Board has selected R. Thomas Burgasser, former part-time North Tonawanda City Court judge and a current assistant county attorney, as the hearing officer.

“As a former judge, he certainly knows how to run a hearing,” O’Toole said. He said it’s not yet known how much Burgasser’s services will cost.

O’Toole said Burgasser doesn’t have the power to order any action against Sturgeon, but his report would be submitted to the board for action.

Naughton said Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe and Councilmen Larry L. Helwig and Gilbert Doucet, the latter two being liaisons between the board and the Recreation Department, should recuse themselves from voting on any action against Sturgeon. Naughton said the three elected officials should have known how the concession stand was being run.

Cliffe declined to comment on that. O’Toole said he disagrees with Naughton’s demand.

“The charges say they’re looking for something up to and including dismissal,” Naughton said. “They offered (Sturgeon) a settlement including a voluntary retirement. That was not acceptable.”

“Certainly that was on the table at one point,” O’Toole said. “We’ll have some pre-hearing discussions, and there may be a discussion of a settlement.”

O’Toole said Sturgeon was suspended by a board vote June 10, after the board had an exit interview with a state auditor.

“We acted quickly and decisively to protect the assets of the town,” Cliffe said.

The charges accuse Sturgeon of not following town rules and policies in regard to the handling of the cash, maintaining a petty cash fund greater than the $500 limit in state law, and failing to turn over money to authorized accounts.

By state law, Sturgeon, who earns $62,193 a year, could be suspended without pay only for the first 30 days. After that, the town had to resume paying him, O’Toole said. But Sturgeon remains off the job. His deputy, Michael Ranalli, has been running the Recreation Department since June 10.

The state audit says Sturgeon did not send cash receipts from the concession stand to Cliffe, who is the town’s chief fiscal officer. Instead, Sturgeon deposited them in a bank deposit he controlled, which O’Toole said the town didn’t know about.

The stand’s gross receipts totaled $12,229 from 2010 through 2012, the report says. Sturgeon spent $925 from the cash drawer on supply purchases. Another $8,696 in purchases were made by check through the Sturgeon-controlled account, but the audit says the Town Board never approved or audited those purchases.

Of the $11,304 from the cash drawer that remained after the $925 in cash purchases were subtracted, only $9,665 made it into the bank, the audit says. Although there were 40 withdrawals from the drawer, there were only six recorded deposits.

The audit says Cliffe gave the auditors a June 5 email from Sturgeon in which he offered to repay the missing $1,639. O’Toole said no such payment has been made.

The Fairmount Park concession stand was not open this summer. It had been run for years by community groups as a fundraising opportunity, O’Toole said. The town began to operate it directly in 2009. “If we could find an outside operator interested in running it, we would be interested in striking a deal,” O’Toole said.

The audit recommended that all receipts from the stand be sent to Cliffe, and the board approve transactions made with that money.

The comptroller’s auditors checked all the other financial transactions of the Recreation Department in 2012, when it collected $34,165 in cash for sports fees, pavilion rentals and other miscellaneous charges. They found no discrepancies, and all of that money was deposited properly.

The audit also touches on the disposal of old computers. The town has been removing the hard drives from the old computers and storing them. Helwig is also Niagara County’s information technology director. At last week’s Town Board meeting, he said the drives were in “a secure location.”

Cliffe said that’s in the basement of Town Hall. He said the town needs to scrub the hard drives clean of all data. “Then the town can send them to electronics recycling,” he said.

The town bought six new computers last year, including two for the Recreation Department.

Sturgeon told the auditors he rotated out his department’s two oldest computers, but the auditors said that for a while, one was unaccounted for. It was eventually found by Sturgeon in a storeroom, but it was not sent to Town Hall.

“Without comprehensive policies that explicitly convey disposition procedures of the town’s electronic assets, the loss or misplacement of surplus computers that may contain sensitive data could result in inappropriate use and compromise network systems,” the auditors wrote.

O’Toole said, “We’re in the process of formulating a comprehensive information technology policy that should satisfy the concerns of the comptroller.”

He said a University at Buffalo Law School intern is doing that work.

“There’s been no breach of security,” O’Toole said.