Press-Republican

May 16, 2014

Comptroller: Altona bookkeeper helped herself to cash

By SUZANNE MOORE
Press-Republican

---- — ALTONA — Former Town of Altona bookkeeper Danielle Peryea altered receipts and took cash totaling $23,500, according to an investigation by the State Comptroller’s Office.

“This individual controlled town finances with little oversight and had no difficulty in pocketing public money,” Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said in a press release.

Peryea, 34, whose title was secretary to the supervisor, also failed to deposit some checks, putting the town at risk of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding.

“I should have been checking closer, and I wasn’t,” Town Supervisor Larry Ross told the Press-Republican on Thursday.

He said Peryea had made excuses, including computer problems, when he’d asked her about incomplete duties that included the annual financial report to the Comptroller’s Office.

The audit by that agency had revealed the misappropriation of funds and mishandling of the town books, Ross said.

“It was good that it happened before anything got out of hand.”

‘BORROWED THE MONEY’

Peryea was fired by the Town Council on May 30, 2013.

“In August 2013,” DiNapoli’s office said, “after learning of the comptroller’s audit, the former bookkeeper remitted the missing money to town officials but claimed it was a ‘donation’ to the town.” 

Later, the report said, she admitted to investigators that “between 2009 and 2013, she altered town receipts and took town money without permission.”

She signed a statement on Nov. 12, 2013, saying she had “changed receipts and borrowed money with the intent to pay it back,” the report said.

Peryea did not immediately return a call from the Press-Republican asking for comment. 

DiNapoli’s office sent its findings to Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie. 

The DA’s Office said Thursday that it can’t comment on a case when no arrest has been made.

‘ALTERED RECEIPTS’

DiNapoli said in the release that the audit revealed that town officials couldn’t account for all funds handled by Peryea and didn’t make sure they were deposited and properly recorded in the accounting records. 

Auditors found that Peryea “frequently altered receipts to show a lower amount collected from the (Feinberg) Park director and code enforcement officer.” 

Park and recreation fees totaling $18,586, $4,146 in code-enforcement fees and $800 in Town Hall rental fees were not deposited, the audit showed. 

The Town Council, the audit said, was not given information on revenues and so did not realize Peryea had not completed paperwork in a timely manner and the town had not received Consolidated Highway Improvement Program funding of $140,534 for 2011 and 2012.

As well, auditors found five checks totaling $337,818 in Peryea’s office, among them a state aid reimbursement for $220,000, the report said. Because it hadn’t been deposited, the funds were turned over to the State Comptroller’s Office of Unclaimed Funds.

In both cases, Ross said, the town was able to reclaim the money.

‘NO OVERSIGHT’

The audit also says, among other findings:

• The town did not have complete, accurate and up-to-date accounting records. 

• Ross did not perform proper monthly bank reconciliations.

• The Town Council did not audit the records of the supervisor, tax collector, town clerk, code enforcement officer and park manager. 

Town officials agreed with the audit findings, the press release said, and have begun to implement many recommendations made by the comptroller. 

Ross, who has served as supervisor for about two decades, took full responsibility for the lack of oversight that allowed the theft, the audit report said.

“Unfortunately, there are no training or skill requirements to become a town supervisor,” he wrote. “Time and experience guide you. ... Most supervisors rely on an efficient and trustworthy secretary to assist them.

“... I have worked very hard with the new secretary and town board to prevent such findings from reoccurring.”

Melinda Guerin now holds that position.

PAID A PRICE

Ross said he knows Peryea was “having a hard time” during the period when the money was taken.

“You don’t know until you’re in their shoes why they do what they do,” he said.

He feels she paid a price.

“She did pay it all back, and she did lose her job,” he said.

“Unfortunately,” DiNapoli said in the release, “my office continues to uncover instances such as this where local officials are taking advantage of lax financial controls and helping themselves to the money in the public till.”

— Staff Writer Felicia Krieg contributed to this report.

ALTONA INVESTIGATION

See the full audit, including the town's response to its findings: http://is.gd/tf5pHc