Mocciae: ‘$60,000, how much did he make?… It’s ludicrous’
NORWALK, Conn. — William Howard, a sporting goods supplier who was arrested last week, created fake bids to make it appear that he had competition, and provided the fraudulent documents to then-Recs and Parks Athletic Director Gerald Anastasia, thereby coming in as the low bidder for City contracts, Norwalk Police say.
Howard, who until recently was a seasonal part-time City employee, has been charged with 32 counts of forgery, with bail set at $100,000. His business, Sonny & Bill’s Sports Center, got a total $60,085 in contracts through the alleged forgery since 2014, his arrest warrant states.
NancyOnNorwalk was not able to reach Howard’s attorney, Frank Bevilacqua, for comment.
Mocciae: ‘I don’t buy it.’
Although the press release announcing Howard’s arrest last week cited the “professionalism” created by the administration’s reorg as the reason the alleged fraud was uncovered, former Recreation and Parks Department Director Mike Mocciae, reached Saturday, called Howard’s arrest “bullshit” and “an election year stunt.”
Mocciae said Howard, a lifelong Norwalker, has given to his community, providing free t-shirts for fundraisers and “a lot of free things for the city,” and that the 19-hour-a-week employee has been unfairly smeared by the media as having stolen $60,000 when the contracts probably generated about $10,000 in profit after expenses. The actual difference to the city between Howard’s bids and what authentic low bids would have been was at most $2,000, Mocciae said.
“Everything else he’s done and all of a sudden now, ‘he stole from the city’? I don’t buy it, I think it’s just ridiculous. They’ve got nothing better to do? Because they’re not running anything in the city.”
The $100,000 bail amount would be suitable for a murderer, and, “This poor guy, he’s 70 years old. He’s been part of the community for 50 years and doing stuff for free, as a community person,” he said. “I think it’s just ridiculous.”
Mayor Harry Rilling declined Saturday to respond to Mocciae’s comments. On Friday, when asked about description of Howard’s alleged wrongdoing as detailed in the arrest warrant, he said, “The fact that this occurred, and was allowed to continue for so long, is very disturbing indeed. There is no information to indicate that Mr. Mocciae was involved or had knowledge of what was occurring. However, being the head of the department he certainly should have been more aware of the bid process and the potential for abuse.”
Did it that way ‘for years’
The investigation began Oct. 19 when Superintendent of Recreation Sandy Korkatzis contacted the Norwalk Police Department with two complaints of fraud, Detective Chris Imparato wrote in Howard’s arrest warrant obtained Friday by NancyOnNorwalk.
Korkatzis, who came to work in Norwalk just over a year ago, became suspicious of an invoice for t-shirts and baseball equipment from Sonny & Bill’s Sports Center in late September, seeing a conflict because Howard was a City employee and a summer camp director, the warrant states.
The Recreation and Parks Department does not have pre-approved vendors and is free to choose whoever it wants, she told Imparato. The City’s procurement guidelines require a minimum of two bids for jobs worth between $1,000 and $4,999.
“She further explained stated that the procurement guidelines prohibit revealing individual bids to other bidders during the bidding process,” Imparato’s warrant states. But Anastasia told her Howard “had produced the quotes from the other vendors and that this is the process that has been used for years.”
Korkatzis examined other invoices from Sonny & Bill’s Sports Center and “discovered that for at least the past five years, Bill Howard’s company had submitted approximately 32 bids on behalf of his business and that in each instance only one other bid was included in the Department’s file,” the warrant states.
All of the other bids came from either Crown Prints, a Norwalk company, or Crown Trophy, located in New Rochelle, N.Y. Howard was always the low bidder. The bids from his supposed competitors were in the same Word document format, and one bid from 2016 had the address for Crown Trophy on a document allegedly from Crown Prints, the warrant states.
Imparato wrote that Crown Prints owner Jim Erotopoulos told him and Det. Michael Pugliese that the bids the detectives showed him were not his, and that he uses Quick Books to produce bids, not Word.
“He also stated that he would not have submitted bids to the City of Norwalk because he could underprice every other vendor,” Imparato wrote. “I asked him about Bill Howard and he stated that Bill Howard is a friend that he has done business with for several years. Jim stated that Bill Howard has called him about price quotes in the past but Bill does not work for Crown Prints and therefore is not authorized to submit bids on Crown Prints behalf.”
Crown Trophy owner Michael Murray also denied making the bids on file, Imparato said.
Anastasia “liked to keep the business local so he usually reached out to Bill Howard,” Imparato wrote. “…Bill Howard would obtain the bids from other companies and then give them to Anastasia along with Howard’s bid.”
The warrant says “Anastasia stated that based on the Norwalk Procurement Guidelines the bidders are not supposed to know what each other bids but it was easier and faster to just have Bill Howard get all the bids. He stated that Bill Howard would usually hand deliver him the bids in the office and sometimes emailed them if Anastasia needed them in a hurry.”
The staff ‘went from 15 to four’
An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “there have been suspicions of these kinds of insider deals under the previous Director. This certainly lends credence to those suspicions.”
NancyOnNorwalk has received tips in the past, alleging that townies were inappropriately profiting through working for Recreation and Parks. The last such allegation was several years ago.
Mocciae retired in mid-2017 and is living in Beaufort, S.C. Rilling’s subsequent reorganization gave the newly created Chief of Operations and Public Works jurisdiction over Recreation and Parks.
“I think as things evolved in Norwalk, that they got less for their money,” Mocciae said. “…They’re not Norwalk residents, the people who work there now, they know nothing about the city.”
The Recreation and Parks staff went “from 15 to four” full-time employees and “we couldn’t possibly get quotes on a daily basis, so we rely on people to get quotes. If they didn’t give a reliable (quote), well that’s the problem.”
You “would assume they’re valid, you shouldn’t need to check on them,” that would be done by the purchasing department, he said. “It never happened.”
Mocciae said the purchasing department used to go out for blanket orders and was therefore in charge of getting quotes for t-shirts, trophies and equipment. Recreation and Parks didn’t have to worry about “nickel and dime bids” from $500 to $2,000, he said. “If they’re not doing that now, well shame on them,” Mocciae said. “That’s the administration’s problem.”
Having a vendor on call helped fulfill urgent needs on short notice, he said. For instance, if you’re running a sports league, you find out the sizes of uniforms you need and you need them in a week.
Cell phone bills used to be sent to department heads for review, and “if one of your employees happened to make a call that wasn’t city-related on your phone, then we would deduct that, and then they stopped that too,” Mocciae said.
Norwalk has no rules or regulations prohibiting a part-time employee from getting contracts with the City, he said. Common Council member Fred Bondi was Chair of the Recs and Parks Committee as well as Connecticut Babe Ruth State Commissioner and sold trophies to Norwalk, and “Nobody ever said anything” about a conflict of interest, Mocciae said. “I stopped that.”
He said, “You work your ass off to make a difference. And you deal with what you have to deal with. When you go from a staff of 15 to four, you couldn’t possibly follow up on all that stuff. You rely on people to be honest and genuine. Right? And that’s what you get. So did Billy make a mistake? Yes, he probably did, by not getting accurate quotes, that would match what they needed.”
“The City of Norwalk has made so many changes, they have so many layers of bureaucracy,” Mocciae said. “Nobody (in the bureaucracy) ever worked and lived in Norwalk, they don’t care about local vendors…. They’re not doing a goddamn thing in City Hall and now all of a sudden, ‘Oh, we got Billy Howard’ …(he) dedicated his life to this… And then they screw him like this.”
NancyOnNorwalk asked Rilling if he had been involved in the decision to contact the police department when the alleged fraud was uncovered. He didn’t answer that question, and also declined to say if Anastasia would face any consequences. He also didn’t say if Anastasia took the early retirement package authorized by the Council in August. His last day was Oct. 9, 10 days before Korkatzis contacted police to make the fraud complaint.
“The investigation revealed no paper trail leading from Mr. Howard to anyone else in the department.
“It should be noted that Mr. Howard was a part-time seasonal employee and not a full-time employee of the city.
“There is also no reason to believe that any similar behavior is occurring in the Recreation and Parks department or in any other department within the city.”