In Charlton, where did all the money go?

What happened to the money? That’s the big question in Charlton, where the former treasurer of Fire

What happened to the money? That’s the big question in Charlton, where the former treasurer of Fire District No. 1, Virginia DeCapria, is accused of stealing as much as $500,000 over the course of six years, mostly in cash directly to herself, partly in consumer goods bought on a credit card and charged to the district.

Saratoga County District Attorney Jim Murphy says, “There’s no outside sign of wealth. They have a rented house, they don’t have fancy cars, they don’t have particularly expensive habits, travel, entertainment, clothing, dinners. The comptroller’s office and the state police have looked for wealth, and they have found no wealth.”

He hastens to add that Virginia DeCapria’s husband, Dean, is not suspected of being complicit in his wife’s alleged theft, and indeed the couple are now separated and on such adversarial terms that she has an order of protection against him. That happened early this year, when the comptroller’s investigation got under way and the district’s board of commissioners fired her.

Virginia continues to live in the rented house. Dean, who was the fire chief and who works as a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning serviceman, has moved in with a friend.

Such embezzlement as she is accused of “typically suggests either drugs, sex or gambling,” Murphy says. “These are the traditional things.” Drugs and sex both seem unlikely in this case, he added — sex usually referring to the maintenance of an expensive lover.

Virginia DeCapria is 50 years old, and she and her husband have several grown or nearly grown children, the oldest of whom is a volunteer firefighter in the Charlton district.

Matt Aiken, director of the Center for Problem Gambling, based in Albany, says, “When there’s embezzlement, it’s usually related to some kind of addiction — gambling, shopping, drugs.” In this case, he said, “It sounds like she’s gambling,” though of course he has no way of being sure.

The behavior fits the pattern.

Mrs. DeCapria initially was to be paid $7,200 a year as secretary-treasurer of the fire district; she is accused of paying herself an extra $7,560 in 2005, an extra $15,080 in 2006, an extra $20,142 in 2007, an extra $40,331 in 2008, an extra $75,370 in 2009, and an extra $158,187 in 2010, when her string ran out.

That’s the pattern, to steal more and more in order to bet more and more in an effort to cover one’s ever-growing losses.

“There’s always the intent to pay it back,” Aiken says. “They will increase their wagers; that’s the chasing.”

“The first time they steal money they’re scared, they’re worried, but once they get through that it becomes easier and easier … After a while they know they’re going to get caught, but they keep doing it. That’s the insanity of gambling.”

I emphasize that we don’t know if gambling is the explanation. It’s just a line of speculation that helps to account for the facts. There might be something else that we don’t know about.

In any event, the money is gone with nothing to show for it. Then there are the odd and inexplicable goods that Mrs. DeCapria allegedly bought on fire district credit cards — 18 printers, eight laptops, seven desktop computers, $12,000 worth of ink cartridges, GPS devices, photo scanners, digital cameras and on and on. Some of it might have had personal use, like a washer and dryer, or a clock radio, but not most of it. What do you do with a thousand ink cartridges?

Murphy says the state police are checking websites like eBay and pay sites like PayPal to see if the goods might have been sold online. Very little of it wound up in the firehouse, though a commissioner told me the other night after a meeting that he had come upon 100 ballpoint pens that he didn’t know about. He said the district aims to donate them to a school before they dry out.

The other question that interests me is how the five elected commissioners who are legally in charge of the fire district allowed their treasurer, the chief’s wife, to have unsupervised control of the district’s money. “Internal controls over the fiscal activities were virtually non-existent,” the state comptroller said in his report. “The treasurer was able to make purchases, pay bills, write checks, and process payroll with no oversight.”

At the meeting the other night in the firehouse I asked the one commissioner who is a carryover from the previous board, Doug Sargent, about that, and he said simply, “trust,” meaning he and his colleagues had placed too much trust in the treasurer, which I would call an understatement.

The commissioners are responsible for managing the money that the fire district raises through taxes on its residents, and they flat out didn’t do their jobs. Now $500,000 of that money has gone where the woodbine twineth, and they just walk away without consequences. Indeed one of them stays on the job, as chairman of the new board, no less.

I think at least they should be paraded through town naked, with residents able to prod them from behind with pitchforks.

The amount of money that Mrs. DeCapria paid herself in 2010 — her legitimate salary at that time of $8,428 plus $158,187 not authorized by anyone — “was about 55 percent of the $303,393 tax levy for that year,” the comptroller noted.

So while residents were complaining about ever-rising fire-district taxes, Mrs. DeCapria was allegedly taking half of the proceeds for herself.

Or the equivalent. The fire district’s new lawyer, Terry Hannigan, hired to help clean up the mess, emphasized at the meeting the other night that Mrs. DeCapria was not taking new tax money coming in the door but was pillaging existing reserve accounts, allegedly. So if taxes didn’t go up at all, she still could have, and presumably would have, taken just as much.

It’s a distinction without a huge difference, in my view. The district routinely raises its taxes to the legal limit, under a state formula that tracks property values, and whatever is not needed for daily operations goes into reserve accounts — for equipment, for land for a proposed new firehouse. So whether you take money from those reserve accounts or you take new money coming in, amounts to much the same thing.

But if you’re concerned that Mrs. DeCapria as budget-writer was raising taxes to stuff in her own pocket, no, there was not that one-to-one correspondence. Taxes were going up for one reason, and the alleged theft was going on independently.

If you’re wondering if the fire district has anything left in its reserve accounts, the answer is yes. It has $314,374, according to the new treasurer, Andy LaPatra.

If you’re wondering if the district will be able to recover any of its lost money, the answer is in abeyance. There is some insurance coverage, and if Mrs. DeCapria is ultimately found guilty there will of course be an effort to squeeze something out of her, though I don’t know how effective that will be.

If you’re wondering what finally tripped her up and led to the state investigation, it was the town supervisor, Alan Grattidge, discovering that the amount of money Mrs. DeCapria recorded on the fire district budget for her salary did not match what she was recording in her annual report to the state comptroller’s office. (The town and the fire district are separate entities, but the fire district’s budget gets attached to the town budget.)

Grattidge alerted someone he knew in the comptroller’s office, and the wheels started grinding. Eventually we wound up where we are today, with Mrs. DeCapria under arrest and facing a grand jury proceeding.

Categories: Opinion

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