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Retired Norwalk department director blasts ‘ridiculous’ arrest

Mocciae: ‘$60,000, how much did he make?… It’s ludicrous’

“Professionalized restructuring of City Hall” helped uncover alleged forgery by part-time employee William Howard, Mayor Harry Rilling said in a press release last week. Former Recreation and Parks Department Director Mike Mocciae said Saturday that the “many layers of bureaucracy” aren’t serving the city well.

William Howard, 70. (Norwalk Police)

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.”

 

Rilling’s thoughts

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.

Rilling wrote:

“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.”

15 comments

Tom Cahill March 8, 2021 at 7:09 am

I’ve known Bill Howard since high school and I would trust him in any transaction, business or personal.

Interesting March 8, 2021 at 7:26 am

Hmmm, putting aside the forgery issue, sounds like city’s ethics policy doesn’t cover part-time employees – or maybe makes it OK for some employees, appointed/elected officials to do business with the city? Interesting.

Milly March 8, 2021 at 7:47 am

I am not for people breaking the rules but to make this a criminal investigation is over the top. They could have handled it in house – its obvious that Parks & Rec higher ups knew he was the only bidder and allowed it to go on for years. Plus the city got products for our (tax) money – it was not embezzled.
This reminds me when the city made a criminal case out of someone taking money from petty cash – the city worries about small amounts when in 2018 $900,000 was wired to scammers – whatever happened to getting that money back?

BLAKE March 8, 2021 at 8:45 am

There is not a nicer man in Norwalk than Billy Howard!!
Let me know where to sign up as a CHARACTER witness, the line will be 2 miles long.

Bobby Lamb March 8, 2021 at 9:55 am

Mocciae’s attitude is exactly what was wrong with the City in the “good old days.” Like Rilling or don’t, but he’s sure cleaned up city hall.

Mitch Adis March 8, 2021 at 12:18 pm

Mocciae’s comments and attitude toward theft shows what’s wrong in City Hall. If you steal $100 from a Gas Station, you go to jail. If you steal $2,000 from the City, there should be a punishment. Mocciae seems to believe stealing is okay as long as you don’t steal too much. How many more who think like him do we still have in City Hall?

Tysen Canevari March 8, 2021 at 1:00 pm

Good for you Mike for speaking up. Unfortunately, we have a mayor that stays home and doesnt want to re open city hall. The athletic programs in Norwalk suffer because there is no staff in Parks and Rec to handle it. They are lucky that the people that work there go above and beyond. The mayor has an assistant doing his job for $100,000 plus a year but the parks department has 2 guys prepping 20 plus fields in the summer. Bill Howard is a good guy and so is Gerald. We do hire all these people from out of town who need a history of Norwalk lesson from Ralph Bloom. Now the new lady can at Parks and Rec can accept her employee of the month award for getting Bill Howard arrested and tarnishing his character over a supposed $2000. Hell, I know people that used to take more than that from the gate at the beach! What a shame Norwalk is becoming.

David T McCarthy March 8, 2021 at 1:08 pm

Petty crime is still crime, so, while this guy likely netted very little and arguably could have made the same if the process had worked appropriately, he should be investigated, etc.

The larger question for me has always been, why did long time purchasing agent for the city Gerald Foley leave? He went for a job with (as I recall) a longer commute and a lower or roughly equal salary? Was he being pressured to accept bids from certain contractors or give some form of information on bids inappropriately and if so, by whom?

LynnBB March 8, 2021 at 1:32 pm

Let it be known I am in COMPLETE agreement with Molly & Blake, 100%!
I have been struggling with words and they summed it right up perfectly! Molly, that 900K OMG!

Alan Botens March 8, 2021 at 6:39 pm

“The Recreation and Parks staff went “from 15 to four” full-time employees…”

This is the first step of the MO of Neoliberalism. First starve a government agency of resources. Then, when it fails to perform adequately, have a private contractor provide a function that SHOULD remain within the public sector, where is is subject to democratic accountability and no tax-payer money gets sucked out of the community to distant investors.

I used to blame this on the lack of civic-mindedness of tax-phobic Americans, but now I blame it on our politicians who have let the giant corporations and billionaires get away with escaping the reach of the tax collector.

Bryan Meek March 9, 2021 at 7:41 am

In the year 2021 how many of our systems are still paper based? Maybe the assistant mayor needs another assistant or reorg that raised the budget 6% to figure this one out.

Steve Mann March 9, 2021 at 10:46 am

In a society that is eliminating cash bail, $100k is way over the top for this issue. Someone doesn’t care for Mr. Howard much.

Omg March 10, 2021 at 6:23 pm

David McCarthy

Gerald worked diligently on every bid processed within the walls of the Purchasing Department. Gerald would Never do things without it being in the best interest if the City.

The City lost a great Purchasing Director who was admired by his colleagues for his professional work ethics.

Hmmmmm March 10, 2021 at 7:01 pm

Wasn’t it Fred Bondi who was on the Common Council and was also on Parks & Recs Committee. He was the supplier for sporting goods for years. Did he make money off the Committee he was on.

Bob Farris March 11, 2021 at 4:01 am

Ok I.get it, a crime is a crime and all crimes should have consequences. However those consequences should somehow be equal to the severity of the alleged crime. 32 counts of forgery?100K bond. Come on,that’s way over the top.Was this such a massive crime it couldn’t be handled in house? How about looking out for and taking care of those that took care of us. I’m not saying sweep it under the rug, figure out the real amount of money, have him pay restitution and take his job. It sounds to me like there’s a ladder to climb to find out who should have caught this from the get go. It’s just easier to put the blame on Bill. You mean to tell me that this went on for years and NOBODY was even suspicious about it? I call bullshit! Bill Howard gave more time to the youth of this city than most could imagine. Please note I said GAVE his time, for free, no pay. I watched him do it for years. Did Bill make a mistake? I guess the powers to be say he did. Personally I think a few people with much more power than Bill knew what was up and just didn’t want to deal with it, it would have meant they had to actually do what’s described in their job description. I’ve made my share of mistakes as well over the years. Things I’m not proud of that we’re much worse than the crime Bill is being accused of. I had a 5K bond and was on probation for a year. I’m 55 years old and was born and raised in this city, and have been living in the house I grew up in for 49 of my 55 years. My parents also taught in Norwalk, my dad put in 40 years teaching and another 20 subbing. I played youth and high school sports as did my 3 kids. I have a son who will soon be teaching in Norwalk and has been coaching rec league sports for several years now with me assisting him at times. We worked with Bill closely and he was never anything but kind, helpful and appreciated the time we gave to the kids. My point is I’m pretty aware of what goes on in tNorwalk and something really sticks. I don’t think we’ve heard the end of this and the more we find out the less Bill will be involved. I completely agree with Blake who posted above. Tell me where to be and when to be there to act as a character witness for who I consider a legend in the Norwalk sporting community. Sincerely Bob Farris

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