Norwalk political notes: Seeking answers on red flags; ‘POKO’

NORWALK, Conn. — Some Norwalk political notes for you:

  • Adamowski promises answers
  • Rilling: Policies changed after $900K payment to scammers
  • ‘POKO’ discussions ongoing
  • Council authorizes offer for Milligan



Rilling seeks information

Norwalk Public Schools cannot keep operating in a vacuum, Mayor Harry Rilling wrote to Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski on Tuesday, asking seven questions to address “red flags raised during this budget process.”

Adamowski promised answers by March 6.

Rilling’s questions follow many stinging accusations made by Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz.

Norwalk Public Schools had awarded teachers with gift cards that expired before they could be used, and has not been forthcoming on how much money had been spent on the venture, Dachowitz said. Also, NPS employees took trips to Detroit, Puerto Rico and Las Vegas to try to recruit minority teachers.

And, it’s almost impossible to determine the NPS headcount, and while NPS states its salaries have gone up 9 percent, the “union contract” had a 2.3 percent increase, Dachowitz said, complaining, “They added 23 full time equivalents to that salary line.”

Rilling asks for information on those topics, and also questions why some schools do not have basic supplies while money is being spent on new programs. He wants a list of expenditures on training and professional development, whether in town or elsewhere, and seeks an accounting of how the recent $1 million special appropriation was spent. And, he’d like an accounting of catering expenditures.

Council members on Tuesday offered many reassurances to Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton, who recently said he was “very troubled and disturbed by the divisive, needlessly adversarial, and blatantly inaccurate tone and tenor and substance of the comments of the City Finance Director.”

“I felt really bad that you felt that your integrity was in question,” Common Council President Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) said. “You served the city for a long time, on both sides, helped us out when we needed to. … I think a lot of us that I’ve spoken with on the Council didn’t take Mr. Dachowitz’ presentation, right that way, we just we just took (it as) building a story for us, helping us see the bigger picture.”

She’s had the chance to work closely with Adamowski, NPS Chief of School Operations Frank Costanzo and NPS Chief Academic Officer Brenda Myers and “have been nothing but impressed at their commitment to our kids’ education,” she said.

Dachowitz is new to Connecticut.

Council member Darlene Young (D-District B) said she agreed with Smyth’s thoughts on Hamilton but Dachowitz has “a different perspective…. for me, that was eye opening, as well.”

Rilling Adamowski communications Feb. 25 2020


Loss remains at $335K

No more money has been collected to mitigate a 2016 loss of $849,741.59 in a computer fraud scheme, Norwalk Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said Monday.

About a year ago, Norwalk announced that it had recovered $515,000, thereby reducing its total loss to less than $335,000. The press release said the City “continues to pursue additional avenues of recovery to further minimize this loss.”

Coppola indicated it’s over with, unless law enforcement officials catch up with the criminals.

In early November 2016, a City employee made a payment to a fraudulent bank account, sending the payment to scammers instead of a company that was doing work for the City. This was quickly discovered, thwarting a second payment. Norwalk Police and the FBI were notified.

“We completely changed our policy relative to taking information on a phone call,” Rilling said Tuesday. “We looked over what happened. It was a truly honest (mistake)… we investigated whether or not there could have been some participation of the employee and there was not. We’re comfortable that this was simply an error.”

The employee in question recently died at age 50 and had worked in the Comptroller’s Office for 30 years.

“In looking at places like IBM and Google and others, they get hacked into,” Rilling said. “This was a perhaps a flaw in the system that we corrected immediately and completely changed our policy relative to how we proceed in the future, to minimize or completely eliminate the possibility of that happening again. Now there was an $800,000 loss…. Farmington also had a situation where they lost more than twice what we did.”

Farmington was similarly duped into directing just over $2 million to “a criminal network based in China,” Attorney David Dowd wrote in 2017. The same vendor was involved, the same technique of an email directing an employee to change the bank account number.

“Through the diligence of our Corporation Counsel, we were able to recover over $500,000 of the money we lost,” Rilling said. “So it was a lesson, an opportunity to tighten up our policy and make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”



Wall Street Place

So what’s up with the plan to restart construction on Wall Street Place, known to many as “POKO”?

“We’re still working through a couple of little things. It’s our understanding that there is progress being made,” Mayor Harry Rilling said Tuesday.

The partially completed Wall Street Place apartment building on the corner of Wall and Isaac Streets is also known derisively as The Tyvek Temple due to it being a dilapidated drag on the neighborhood since mid-2016. Owner Citibank, in conjunction with its preferred redeveloper, JHM Group, revealed a plan in July to restart construction, which included 100 percent affordable housing and a parking garage where the now-closed Garden Cinemas sit. Concerns about the design and desires for an arts center in the area prompted the Council to table the move.

A meeting had been planned this week but there were “still a couple of questions,” so it was delayed a few days, Rilling said. The discussion should happen any day.




‘Not much hope’

The Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to make an offer in compromise to real estate broker Jason Milligan, an attempt to settle the lawsuit prompted by Milligan’s purchase of properties slated to become part of “POKO” phases II and III.

One of those properties, a former municipal parking lot, is also tied to The Tyvek Temple in that Citibank had planned to use the parking until Milligan bought it. The City and Norwalk Redevelopment Agency sued Milligan and Richard Olson of POKO Partners in late 2018, and the lawsuit has dragged on.

The Council discussed the potential offer for about 10 minutes in an executive session, meaning, behind closed doors. Then in public they unanimously voted to make the offer, without comment.

Late last year, Milligan was trying to sell the City the idea of a four to five story garage on his lot at 23 Isaacs Street. The City appeared to be uninterested.

“I do not hold out much hope for big ideas eminating from Norwalk’s law department,” Milligan wrote Tuesday, after being informed of the development.

His further thoughts:

“I am not looking for compromise. Compromise is everybody gives a little. Everyone loses.

“It would be much better for everyone to win! That is what I want and that is what is possible with open minds.

“There is literally zero chance that the people that helped bring us the POKO disaster and the current million dollar legal strategy will solve it all on their own…

“The public show is all theater and pretend. POKO cannot and will not be solved without my input. The mayor and Mario have not sought my input and they have gone ridiculously out of their way to prevent my input from being heard or considered.”


Bryan Meek February 27, 2020 at 8:41 am

There will be a 4% slash in school operations. Larger classrooms. Fewer programs.

But damn the torpedos. $225 million for a new HS we didn’t need is full speed ahead.

We’ll pay for it from the cost savings discovered from a 6 figure audit.

And glad to hear that we can’t be hacked over the phone again. That should keep our good driver discount in place. I’m sure the insurance company didn’t raise our rates or anything like that.

John ONeill February 27, 2020 at 10:55 am

I am quite amused at Mayor Rilling asking Supt. Adamowski for answers on Education Budgets being out of line. Everyone knows the answer but for some reason NO ONE seems to want to admit it. For the 1,000th time — We have an ELL Crisis. Mr. Mayor, just acknowledge the Crisis and let’s deal with it. Holy Cow, this is not rocket science. Add’l teachers are needed for ELL kids, resources have been reallocated away from other programs. We are using a band aid approach to this situation and it’s currently a crisis, which will soon be a disaster. Adamowski can write respond back to Mayor in seconds on budget issues. I would like the Mayor to repeat after me: ELL Crisis. If he says it enough times maybe it will sink in. In the meantime, our state legislators continue to do ZERO for Norwalk situation. Was there anyone from NAACP at budget meeting? Because guess what, the kids they claim to support are getting screwed in this debacle. Maybe we need an email from Mike Barbis to get them fired up. Mike: Can you handle this?? It will only help get state reps off their butts and do something else beside bitch about Trump. The problem as I see it at the state level — our current Norwalk reps our more interested in National issues than Local issues. Maybe a lap around some of our schools would help them understand the issues we have…

Concerned Taxpayer February 27, 2020 at 12:43 pm

Were there legal costs to recover $515k from the fraud scheme, or just premium increases? Actually, can taxpayers get a list of the city’s legal expenditures one day?

Regarding the capital budget, it would be nice if leaders didn’t commit to a new HS in a vacuum.

John Levin February 27, 2020 at 2:20 pm

“Dachowitz is new to Connecticut.”

Bringing new people from outside into responsible positions is key. They will question assumptions, and cast fresh eyes onto old ways of doing things.

Recall, in the film Spotlight (dramatization of a true story, and Best Picture winner, 2016), it was the arrival of a new editor from outside The Boston Globe, that spurred an investigation that uncovered a massive scandal. See this film if you haven’t already.

Joel February 28, 2020 at 10:00 am

I feel compelled to beat this dead horse one more time. This proposal for the new high school has to be shelved until the city’s finances can be thoroughly vetted and the cost to taxpayers assessed. Flat or declining home prices and an increasing tax burden is a lousy combo.

Concerned Taxpayer February 28, 2020 at 6:39 pm

@ Joel, your reservations towards the New High School are logical.. Not a dead horse yet.

While Norwalk has forced the school in their capital budget, we’ve yet to see a commitment from the State.

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