Updated, 5:40 a.m, Berkoff comment
NORWALK, Conn. – The new interim leader of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) spoke Monday about the tremendous hurdles the agency faces while promising that employees will be paid in full by Christmas and assuring Mayor Harry Rilling that steps were being taken to secure what may be criminal evidence in the “potential fraud” that has taken place.
Although the Rev. Tommie Jackson was appointed new NEON interim CEO and President on Nov. 8, NEON’s board voted for four resolutions Monday that gave him legal authority to negotiate on the agency’s behalf with state agencies. That included a resolution ratifying his appointment as CEO and president, which Chairman Mike Berkoff said was done because funders require a resolution.
Eight board members were present, one by phone. That constituted a quorum of the 15-member board.
Jackson then went on to provide much information:
• NEON had less than $10,000 in its bank when he was appointed. As of Monday night there is $77,000 in the bank, and $300,000 is expected to come in by the end of the week, for services that have been provided. Of that, $98,000 will go to staff salaries.
• NEON is about $3 million in the hole. “NEON is far from a point of solvency. It’s very far from a point of solvency,” he said.
• The staff will be paid in full by Dec. 20, he said. “We are hopeful and happy that staff is being paid. Staff will be paid again this week and they will be paid for the period Oct. 28 though Nov. 1,” he said.
• Jackson said he is having teleconferences twice weekly with state Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk), state Rep. Chris Perone (D-Norwalk 137), state Rep. Bruce Morris (D-Norwalk 142), state Rep. Patricia Billie Miller (D-Stamford 145) and occasionally state Sen. Carlo Leone (D-Stamford). He is talking to Rilling every other day on the phone, he said.
• “I am meeting with a CPA Tuesday to consider what we need to do and how we need to do it. The agency at this time lacks clear financial controls and procedures,” he said. “There’s no real procurement process. When you have procurement taking place at one school, procurement taking place at another school, procurement taking place through human resources, procurement taking place through financial, that’s just inappropriate. You need to have a central place where you can go to and point to and make sure those things are done. We will do it. We will do it.”
It was recently revealed that NEON owed South Norwalk Electric and Water (SNEW) about $37,000 and that SNEW was demanding $18,000 by last Wednesday or the power might be shut off.
That didn’t happen. Jackson said it won’t happen in the future either.
“We were fortunate and able to, with the assistance of Mayor Rilling’s office and staff, enter into and agreement with SNEW where they are not going to turn off the lights,” Jackson said. “We will continue to have service here and those services contune to go forward. But there were decisions that were made and I don’t know at what time those decisions were made. But I will tell you this without equivocation: those decisions constituted waste, mismanagement, tantamount to borderline fraud. When you have situations that lead to waste and mismanagement you create an atmosphere that lead to fraud. I have not found fraud yet. I may never find it. I’m not looking for it. But if it shows up you’ll know about it.”
Rilling sat through the entire meeting, as did Common Councilwoman Phaedrel (Faye) Bowman (D-District B) and Democratic District D Chairman Vinny Mangiacopra.
Rilling, Norwalk’s police chief for 17 years, zeroed in on the possible criminality of former NEON staff.
“Do you know if records or any other documents that might lead to a criminal investigation have been removed from the building without knowledge or do you know that everything is in place?” he asked.
“We have tried as best as we could to secure any and all documents as well as securing computers,” Jackson said. “Let me say for the record that when (former interim NEON CEO and president) Mrs. Patricia Wilson Pheanious left in September she left with an agency telephone that she still has at this time. I’m trying to verify whatever materials and goods she may have at this time including computers, whether that’s laptop or desktop, it’s not clear, but we have made steps, including disabling security pass codes and locks on the doors.”
Those measures were taken in both Norwalk and Stamford, he said.
On Nov. 5, paychecks issued to NEON employees bounced. Jackson referred to that as a possible criminal act, and said the Department of Labor had threatened to issue warrants for the people who signed the checks, which have since been made good by NEON.
“We are making efforts to engage the states attorney of Norwalk, who reports to the chief states attorney in Stamford, Mr. Cohen, to determine and ascertain what review might need to be done to determine what and if any criminality otherwise exists,” he said.
A member of the public questioned the actions of the board, saying that perhaps they needed a reeducation. Jackson said the board is in transition, having served for less than a year, and that he and Berkoff are trying to arrange more training.
Board member Cynthia Bowser said she joined because NEON’s services are important to Stamford.
“We’re in shock,” she said. “We came into this board in March with the former commissioner of the state of Connecticut Department of Social Services (Pheanious). Never in my wildest nightmare would I have imagined what transpired under her watch. So at this particular time we are trying to ascertain the information. We may seem a little jaded – we are.”
Jackson refused to throw Pheanious under the bus.
“Where NEON is today did not happen last week,” he said. “It did not happen last month and it probably did not happen in the last six months. As I have been able to ascertain, the problems were long simmering and they were hidden underground, and then they surfaced. Sometimes when they surface the last person around is the one who gets the blame. I am not here to blame anybody. I think the last administration walked into a hornet’s nest, if I might put it that way. It got stung in a lot of ways in a way that somebody else, if they had known, would not have been stung. The problems just did not occur in the past six to eight months. So you can look at it in a historical perspective e, it’s systemic as well as it is situational and it has to be addressed.”
Berkoff again mentioned the $2.6 million in funding withheld by Norwalk under the direction of former Mayor Richard Moccia, as well as the cost of the merger with Stamford’s CTE, which Jackson said added $690,000 to the deficit. Berkoff also mentioned the decisions made by the former board and management to continue Norwalk services in spite of the lack of funding from the city.
“We’re $3 million short because of those three components,” he said. “There was a squeeze at the very end, the last 60-90 days … Basically, NEON hit the wall.”