Following a widespread mailing to voters from the incumbent Republican East Hampton Town supervisor, which claims that Zach Cohen, his Democratic opponent in the November election, worked “unlawfully” on the town’s finances under Bill McGintee, the disgraced former supervisor, Mr. Cohen has, in a press release, accused Bill Wilkinson of “outright lies.”
Mr. Wilkinson directly links Mr. Cohen’s voluntary financial advice with the misallocation of funds under Mr. McGintee, tagging the last budget the McGintee administration prepared as the “McGintee-Cohen” budget. Mr. Wilkinson’s letter says there was “$10 million of padding” in that budget, which his administration has “reigned [sic] in” since taking office in 2010.
Moreover, Mr. Wilkinson uses the words “unpaid, unauthorized [and] uncredentialed” in characterizing Mr. Cohen’s involvement in the town’s finances. His actions were “basically illegal,” Mr. Wilkinson said in an interview on Tuesday.
“Absent of a town board resolution [Zach Cohen] was unauthorized in his unfettered access to computers, to checkbooks, to officers and the budget, during the time, through his own self-admission, he helped prepare,” Mr. Wilkinson said.
Mr. Cohen, who has an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago and has been endorsed by the Working Families Party and was by the local Independence Party, says he made his expertise available to the town comptroller, Janet Verneuille, during the entire year of 2009. In his press release, he also says that in 2008 he brought the improper use of community preservation funds to the town board’s attention.
Mr. Cohen insists that not only the McGintee administration asked him for help in unraveling the town’s financial morass and pending bankruptcy, but that Mr. Wilkinson and Theresa Quigley also called on him for analysis and preparation of an alternative financial plan, which they released during the election campaign. Mr. Cohen goes on to say the Wilkinson administration continued to rely on his advice during its early days in office, even placing him on the town’s Budget and Finance Advisory Committee.
Mr. Wilkinson also charges Mr. Cohen with having cost the town thousands of dollars by making faulty accusations against Nawrocki Smith, the external auditing firm chosen to assess the McGintee adminstration’s financial misdeeds. Len Bernard, the town budget officer under Mr. Wilkinson, echoed the supervisor’s concerns.
“The engagement letter to do the yearly audit said only $100,000 could be spent and we expected to pay less, but it took much longer because of the wild goose chases the auditors had to go on because of the allegations Cohen made against the work Nawrocki Smith had done,” Mr. Bernard said.
Mr. Bernard also said Nawrocki Smith was forced to absorb $56,000 in extraneous claims, because its re-investigation costs far exceeded the amount it had agreed to charge.
Pete Hammerle, a town councilman in both adminstrations, interviewed on Tuesday, said all the work given to Nawrocki Smith during the McGintee reign, was authorized by Ms. Verneuille and the entire town board. “Zach did not have the power to unilaterally make anyone do anything,” he said. “He would express concerns and then we would decide whether or not to go to the auditors. We welcomed his assistance.”
Mr. Cohen said he had turned away from working with the Wilkinson administration when it refused to allow members of the Business and Finance Advisory Committee to question Nawrocki Smith about an audit under way of the town’s capital expenses. He continued, however, to advise the committee and the independent Group for Good Government until he announced his candidacy for supervisor.
In attempting to undercut Mr. Wilkinson’s charges that he acted illegally, Mr. Cohen cites an e-mail during the 2009 campaign from the secretary of the Republican Party, Tina Piette, which says: “I am assuming you saw some of your ideas etc. in what eventually (and finally!!) came out as a proposed ‘financial plan’ for the board to consider?”
In January, Theresa Quigley, who who was elected deputy supervisor, wrote: “Hope to be working with you on these important issues about which you know so much.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Wilkinson said it was important not to confuse courtesy correspondence, referring to the e-mails Mr. Cohen has offered, with authorized activity or accepted support of any advice. Rather, Mr. Wilkinson insists those e-mails were largely obligatory responses that behoove any successful politician.
Mr. Hammerle and Town Councilwoman Julia Prince, who was also on the town board when the last McGintee budget was prepared, agree that Mr. Cohen had never been appointed formally as a financial consultant but, they say, his involvement was openly understood and appreciated by everyone.
“I was the acting supervisor at the time and [Zach] had the full board’s permission to shuffle through the finances with Janet,” Mr. Hammerle said. “At the time we were not audited yet. Janet came in and was trying to figure out whether we had enough money to get to the end of the year. And Zach showed an acute and, at that time, unbiased interest.”
Ms. Prince said this week that she wasn’t sure why Mr. Cohen’s involvement in the budget would have been illegal. She said all the town attorneys were aware he had volunteered to help, as well as the comptroller who, Ms. Prince said, consulted Mr. Cohen daily.
“If you are sitting there with the state comptroller and the person is speaking their language, a resolution never crosses your mind,” she said. “It was great to have people that were smart and came forward with their ideas. [Zach] wasn’t a political person at the time. He was just trying to offer his services, and he’s a damn good forensic accountant.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Ms. Verneuille was fired. In fact, after her East Hampton Town salary was substantially reduced after Mr. Wilkinson took office, she took a job with the Sag Harbor School District as its business manager. Coverage of that story can be found at http://188.8.131.52/dnn/Archive/Home20100114/News/EastHamptonComptrollerResigns/tabid/11071/Default.aspx