A recalcitrant Saratoga Springs housing official doubled down on his defense that a scathing state review of his agency was misguided and may have been factually inaccurate.
Saratoga Springs Housing Authority board Chairman Eric Weller took a defiant tone Saturday morning from his headquarters in the Stonequist Apartments, where he publicly addressed an audit released Friday by the New York State Comptroller’s Office. The audit accuses the agency of improperly spending taxpayer money on trips, not properly reviewing purchases and poor handling of a bedbug problem in apartments it oversees.
The audit covered from July 2010 until February 2012 and focused on financial operations, while also reviewing the authority’s handling of the highly publicized bedbug problem in Stonequist Apartments. It was prompted by the authority's handling of the bedbugs and the unusually high salary for Executive Director Ed Spychalski.
The audit included a written response from the board by Weller, but he said he felt the need to voice his arguments again Saturday.
The first critique raised by the audit revolved around almost $12,000 in improper expenditures during five trips taken by Spychalski, the former board chairman and other staff. In particular, the state found fault with a September 2011 trip to Washington, D.C., for an approved conference. The trip lasted three days beyond the length of the conference, and a staff clerk was brought on the trip, even though auditors couldn’t find evidence that clerks were invited.
“If the trip had been shortened and the clerk did not attend the forum,” the audit said, “the Authority would have saved approximately $4,850 in unnecessary travel expenses for this trip.”
Weller argued that Spychalski and housing authority personnel arrived early so they could accommodate the schedule of officials such as U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, whom they wanted to lobby. In response, the audit noted that the forum agenda encouraged meetings with elected representatives during the allotted time frame of the conference.
Inquiries by The Gazette on Saturday indicated that Gillibrand’s public schedule didn’t include a meeting with authority personnel during that time. Gibson spokeswoman Stephanie Valle said he didn’t meet with authority personnel during that time, either.
Valle added that Gibson would have been more than willing to move his schedule around or meet in Saratoga Springs if the authority had made a request, as he has been very concerned about the authority’s handling of its finances and bedbugs.
A phone call to Schumer’s office was not answered Saturday.
The audit also notes that authority personnel appeared to use their early arrival to take a tour of the U.S. Capitol building and possibly other sites, instead of attending classes offered by the conference.
A 2011 trip to Phoenix for a conference by authority personnel, including Spychalski, was also criticized, as they spent time in Las Vegas before and after the conference.
In defense of the flight to Las Vegas, Spychalski said Saturday it was impossible to get a direct flight into Phoenix from Albany. The audit notes that he had initially purchased a flight into Phoenix, which was canceled and replaced with the flight into Las Vegas.
While in Las Vegas, the audit said more than $1,000 was wasted on meals and incidental expenses, including a car rental.
Weller said, “As far as I know, agency funds were not used for private meals. If they’ve got some records that prove it, I’d like to see them.”
The records reviewed for the audit included hotel bills, travel documents, other receipts and credit card statements.
The audit says the improper spending was amassed because the board didn’t enforce its required travel authorization policy. Weller was not chair of the board during the period audited.
In his initial written reaction to the findings, Weller said the authority could and would improve procedures for reporting and approving travel expenditures. Before a crowd of supportive tenants on Saturday, he stated that he hadn’t agreed to review anything related to travel expenditures.
Overall, his defense to the audit Saturday was much more hardined than his written response to the state. On Saturday, he argued that the criticisms of the authority have been ginned up by the media and questioned the validity and expertise of an audit by the state Comptroller’s Office.
The audit also found fault with $450,000 in vendor payments that did not receive the appropriate review of the authority board. The accountant for the authority stressed that these purchases had been subject to the board’s oversight since April. Weller went on to say a complete review of purchases by the board is unreasonable and would created a bureaucratic mess.
In response to the audit’s contention that the authority didn’t handle its bedbug infestation well last year, Weller rejected the idea that the Comptroller’s office has the skills to deal with pest control and noted recognition the authority has since received for its handling of bedbugs. The critique from the audit was simply that the authority didn’t move fast enough to accept and deal with the problem of bedbugs.
The audit stated, “Based on the time lines of events that occurred treating the bed bugs, it appears logical that the success of the professional exterminator would have been beneficial sooner rather than later.”
The audit also noted that one board member lamented the fact a professional wasn’t brought in earlier.
Valle, Gibson’s spokeswoman, noted that the authority’s slow reaction had been partially blamed on a lack of funds, which is why she said it was especially important for them to carefully count every penny they spend.
“Moving forward, they need to make sure they’re using their funds in the best way possible,” Valle said.