A number of town workers retained login access to town bank accounts even after their employment with the municipality had ended, New Canaan’s treasurer said Wednesday night.
In working to ensure that town bank accounts are properly secured, Treasurer Andrew Brooks phoned banks to understand “who are the authorized approvers to move money from those accounts” and found that “a number of former employees, some of whom were very high up in the food chain of the town,” had not been moved from the accounts, he said during a regular meeting of New Canaan’s legislative body.
“So I rectified the issue and got those former employees … removed from having any access potentially to those accounts and have their names scrubbed from the account, and I just did that exercise today,” Brooks told members of the Town Council during the group’s meeting, held at Town Hall.
The extent of the problem is unknown to Brooks—there are town bank accounts to which he has no access, he said. Invoking the specter of the Lakeview Avenue Bridge debacle—an embarrassment for New Canaan that arose under a prior administration six years ago, when town officials discovered that a payment of more than $600,000 had been made without proper approvals—Brooks said that based on his own investigative work, officials now are looking into “a couple of issues” regarding payments that may have been improper.
During a follow-up exchange to his assertions, councilman Cristina A. Ross asked: “When you said that you have oversight and you review the bills over $250,0000—have you found anything that is of concern during that process? … For example, you mentioned the $600,000 bridge debacle. Have there been any other issues that have raised flags that we should be aware of?”
Brooks answered: “There are a couple of issues that are currently in pending investigation and review by the Audit Committee, and I take them very seriously. I think it’s key that we ensure that all proper approvals are in place before any payment is made or is being asked of me to make. So I am absolutely on top of that. I have been trying to ensure that no unauthorized payments are made. It is definitely a concern and it is one being looked into right now based on what I was able to catch.”
The statements drew expressions of surprise and concern from the Town Council. They came as Brooks addressed the group in a public meeting for the first time, though the Republican was elected treasurer of New Canaan in 2013, succeeding a man who had served in what to this point has been an essentially volunteer role for 48 years.
A 2005 New Canaan High School graduate who attended the meeting after serving on a panel at his alma mater’s “Career Night,” Brooks told the councilmen he brings the same deliberate, thorough work ethic to his role as treasurer as he does to his professional career as a management consultant.
He spoke for about 20 minutes at the end of the Town Council’s four-hour meeting—itself focused on the budget—about ways to improve cash management, investment and oversight.
Brooks referred to the Lakeview Avenue Bridge payment as “illegal” and said that “ever since that happened, I took it upon myself to make sure that something like that never happens again.”
So, for example, on starting as treasurer he followed a rule whereby any check issued for more than $250,000 must be approved manually by himself “in order to catch any of those kinds of payments from going out without anyone knowing.”
“My role is not to be an internal auditor—that is a separate function and I want to be clear. However, since my name is on these checks ultimately, I care a lot about where the money is going and I want to see where the money is going. I want to see where it is coming from, and what account, and who it is being paid to, and is that a legitimate vendor that we are getting the invoice from. It is very easy to doctor up a vendor.”
Regarding what he referred to as his “investigations,” Brooks stopped short of asserting anyone had committed wrongdoing. He also didn’t name specific individuals or departments in addressing the Town Council. In a statement to New Canaanite after the meeting, Brooks said of the “login access” for former workers: “I’m in the process of scrubbing the former employee names. They are currently inactive users which has restricted their access.”
He came before the legislative body during its budget deliberations—the $1,400 stipend paid to him by the town is part of the Town Council’s review process, now underway. A subcommittee of the group also is recommending that the treasurer’s compensation be raised to a more appropriate level of $20,000 per year.
Some of what Brooks said at the meeting would make it seem as though New Canaan would earn back far more than that much money if only his financial advice were heeded.
For example, he said he has been concerned that there’s a lack of due diligence in ensuring that proper approvals are observed before payments go out of the town.
“I notice some of our invoices are paid very, very quickly and which as you know, it used to be that we were late frequently and had to pay late fees,” he said. “Now we are in a place where we are not doing that really anymore which is great. I’m really happy about that. However, I feel sometimes [that the town makes] very large payments really, really quickly without taking the necessary time to do due diligence—and the town loses interest revenue by moving those funds out of our [interest-bearing] accounts, prematurely.”
According to Brooks, the town could be earning tens of thousands of dollars simply by timing its payments strategically through the course of a year.
“That is something that I have recommended as a strategy and have been providing direction that our payments be timed in that strategic manner, which is pretty basic to me, but it doesn’t seem that we are doing that quite yet, so my hope is that going forward we are going to really work to make sure we are doing that so that we can maximize the revenue for the town and have additional tens of thousands of dollars that can cover teacher pay or any other appropriation that [the town] chooses to make.”
A position mandated by the state, the town treasurer serves in two-year terms. Brooks won two years ago in an uncontested race. The position is established in New Canaan under Article II of the Town Charter (see page three of the recently updated version here).
Councilman Kathleen Corbet—who had run for town treasurer in 2011, and lost to incumbent Donald V. Hersam, who would serve his 24th consecutive and final term before retiring—said that a subcommittee of the group reviewed the treasurer role in 20 towns and found that 14 paid their treasurers, eight of them “well over $20,000.”
Calling the role important, Corbet said that should Brooks choose to run again this fall, New Canaan would stand to benefit from having a “paid treasurer for a very reasonable sum of money.”
Brooks in his own final remarks underscored that it is “important to have checks and balances.”
“And in a situation where you do not have an independent elected person to put a stop on illegal payments, you will have regulatory and ‘reputational’ risk issues,” he said. “And, thankfully, we have been able to avoid that—so far.”