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DA asked to investigate missing funds in Ellicott Town Court accounts

ELLICOTT – A criminal case is continuing against a Town of Ellicott court clerk who has been charged with stealing money.

Jennifer Piazza faces a third-degree grand larceny charge in the case, some details of which were released in an audit by the state Comptroller’s Office on Thursday.

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli on Thursday released an audit and asked the Chautauqua County District Attorney’s Office to investigate the case.

Chautauqua County District Attorney David W. Foley on Friday morning said Piazza was indicted several months ago and a criminal case for the class D felony charge is ongoing.

DiNapoli’s office said his auditors discovered the theft of $34,443 in the town’s court fund.

“The court’s lack of control – including a proper segregation of financial duties, monthly accountability analyses and a regular review of Department of Motor Vehicle reports – allowed the theft of taxpayer funds,” DiNapoli contended.

The comptroller said “a criminal investigation is pending.”

The audit covers the period from Jan. 1 through April 21.

While he did not formally accuse anyone on the court staff by name of committing specific crimes, DiNapoli referred to evidence of “embezzling” of court funds and faulted Town Justices Marilyn Gerace and Sally Jaroszynski for not establishing “appropriate internal controls over the court’s financial processes.”

DiNapoli also criticized the town justices and Town Board for failing to maintain “proper oversight” over the approximately $953,000 in fines, fees and surcharges collected by the town court since January 2011.

The comptroller rebuked the two town justices for what he called their “minimal oversight” of the handling of court funds.

DiNapoli also chided the Town Board for failing to insist on effective internal controls of court funds. He said the irregularities his auditors found in the handling of the town court’s money collecting might have been “detected and addressed in a timely manner” if such controls had been in place.

In a response to the comptroller’s findings, Ellicott Supervisor Patrick W. McLaughlin said town officials were “grateful to the Office of the State Comptroller and its examiners for exposing a ‘thief in our midst,’ ” but he also contended that the Town Board disagreed with “several aspects of the audit review” and will address them in a corrective action plan. McLaughlin ended his written response by complimenting the work of the state examiners who reviewed the court records, saying “they did an extremely thorough job and acted in a professional manner.”

Jury selection for Piazza’s trial has been scheduled for Feb. 9, according to the Jamestown Post-Journal.

Staff Reporter Aaron Besecker contributed to this report. email: mgryta@buffnews.com