Last Thursday, Peter Tesei called into Sam Romeo’s radio show Greenwich Matters on WGCH 1490.
Mr. Romeo, who is the chair of the town’s Housing Authority, and Mr. Tesei discussed Greenwich Time columnist Bob Horton’s recent pieces on issues in the Town’s Parking Services Department.
Mr. Horton, whose columns are marked Opinion and are featured on the front page, has been a harsh critic of Tesei.
On August 4, Horton wrote that Tesei should “immediately pressure the finance board to release the 2017 forensic audit of the Parking Services Department, and order an independent criminal investigation into possible corruption suggested by the department’s lax handling of cash receipts and pre-paid parking cards.”
Horton said that $2 million was lost as a result of voided parking tickets over a six year period ending in June 2016 according to an audit conducted by RSM US LLP, an international tax, audit and consulting firm.
Mr. Romeo said Bob Horton had nothing nice to say about the town of Greenwich.
Mr. Tesei said the demand that the audit be released was politically motivated and would jeopardize the trial of Mr. Michael Gordon, who allegedly stole about $11,000 cash from Parking Services.
“There was an individual arrested last year for theft of public funds in parking services,” Tesei said. “The person is pending trial for theft and during this period of time, the BET who conducted an internal audit, and then spent $150,000 on an outside audit, have been bickering over whether these reports should be released.”
He said last October there was much debate in the audit committee that fell along party lines, and that Jeff Ramer urged the release of these documents.
Tesei said the Town attorney went to the chief state’s attorney Richard Colangelo, who wrote back asking that the audit not be made public as it could put the prosecution at risk of Mr. Gordon.
Tesei said that earlier in the day he learned that two members of the BET – Mr. Ramer and Jill Oberlander – had met with Mr. Colangelo along with the town attorney and chief of police to follow up on having the reports released, and again were advised that to do so would jeopardize the prosecution and open the possibility of nullifying the case.
“And it was made clear to them that the reason it appeared to them wanting to do this was pure politics,” Tesei said. “That’s so much of what’s around us today and, unfortunately it is here in Greenwich.”
As for voided parking tickets, Tesei said Parking Services, which takes in an annual revenue of around $5 million, had a longstanding policy of voiding tickets, but that did not constitute malfeasance as Mr. Horton suggested.
Mr. Horton’s column focused on the history of voided tickets, calling them “unauthorized,” and suggested the $11,000 allegedly stolen by Mr. Gordon was “a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the $2 million identified as ‘possibly misappropriated’ by the audit firm.”
Tesei did not mention Rita Azrelyant, the then director of Parking Services whose position he after the November 2017 election. Ms. Azrelyant has since initiated a lawsuit alleging there was retaliation for her speaking out about unethical practices and mismanagement and that she was unfairly fired.
Tesei said the Town’s retired risk manager, Ron Lalli, who is an internal auditor, has been working three days a week in Parking Services, looking at the voids and categorizing them.
He said former Parking Services Director Allen Corry had a longstanding practice of giving reprieves to first time offenders who came to the window, and that it was “customer service” to forgive a first time ticket.
Tesei said there were also tickets forgiven when people dropped their parking tags, or the tags fell off their rearview mirrors.
“There were reasons why things were done as it relates to the voids,” he said. “They don’t relate to malfeasance. And there’s no way to even prove that.”
Further, he said, in Greenwich, volunteers serve as parking ticket hearing officers.
In fact, Mr. Romeo said he was a parking ticket hearing officer for five years, and that there were many instances when people missed the 15-day deadline to pay a ticket before it doubled, and they would be forgiven the doubling and pay just the initial fine.
“I’m sick and tired of seeing this blogger on the front of the paper,” Romeo said, referring to Mr. Horton.
“He seems to like people of a particular political persuasion, or who feed him things and are sort of like a dissident mentality,” Tesei said. “He uses his column selectively to provide partial information. There is no secret he is part of the Democratic party and was part of the campaign night this past November along with their standard bearer smiling ear to ear. There’s a ‘Let’s see who we can take down mentality.’”
“I’m tired of being bullied by people. Mr. Ramer is a bully. I’ll say it to his face through the air. He’s trying to cast a pall on the town,” Tesei continued. “There’s a lot of good that’s happening and they don’t want the person in the front office to take credit for the good, they only want me to take credit for the bad.”
Tesei said members of the BET should be more willing to work together, “rather than figure out ways to score political points to get political traction.”
“This is also fueled in part because there are a lot of people angry about national issues,” Tesei said, segueing to the large number of candidates who ran for RTM last November. “So they got involved. They’re looking for anything to latch on to. Some of them never even voted before in local elections… But they exercised their right, God bless them, but they were emboldened by something not relevant to the town per se.”
Romeo said he was disheartened by last November’s municipal elections.
“We’ve never let outside national politics influence us. But it got real nasty, real dirty and it’s all because there’s a hatred of Donald Trump,” he said.
“To bring it into the town of Greenwich and denigrate our Town is not right. That’s not the town I care to live in. …I think we as Town fathers have an obligation to get the right message out there and work as hard as we can to show the face of Greenwich – the face of Greenwich that Bob Horton doesn’t even know about because he doesn’t even live here.”
Tesei said Mr. Horton uses information selectively. “He uses innuendo. It is driven by animus. He thinks he’s going to win a Pulitzer Prize.”
Tesei said he has tried to be responsive to Mr. Horton’s requests for information, but, “It’s evident you can’t deal with people who carry such animus and hatred because they’re not interested in being fair and objective.”
Mr. Romeo said the only reason the issue of the BET audits is coming up is to damage Tesei’s reputation.
Tesei suggested that anger at him is actually misplaced anger at the president, and blamed the media.
“I won’t be a punching bag for what’s really a bully mentality. Some people on the other side of the aisle will say it all started with Donald Trump. But it began before him,” Tesei said. “I think the media owns this. The media gives people attention. If the media gives people attention for doing something, they’re only going to do it more.”
The First Selectman went on to say he sets a tone of civility in his office and that he was disappointed that members of the BET were “pulling punches.”
“There are things the BET has done that, if presented in a certain way can have an appearance of conflict,” he said. “If that’s how we want to proceed, it’ll be a bad day and a bad time for the Town. I would hate to go down that road.”
He said there is an individual on the BET who represents one of the Town’s largest property owners, and that creates an appearance of conflict. Acknowledging that the person received the approval of the Board of Ethics, he said however, “In this case this member represented the property owner on the appeal in court, and sat on the BET, which sets the budget for the law department.”
“There is an appearance of conflict. If we want to go down that road, be my guest, we’ll be pointing it out and we’ll be driving people away from the essence of what makes Greenwich great, which is its volunteers,” he said. “It’s a sorry state of affairs when national political tactics are brought to bear in a community like Greenwich, because it will destroy the essence of Greenwich.”
Romeo agreed. “Hopefully in this next election we can have a louder voice and we’ll be more successful and turn our state around because this state has been controlled by one party and we’re near bankruptcy. Enough is enough on that.”
Tesei said people who criticize him for the unpublished Parking Services audits, his ‘Greenwich First’ slogan and the voided parking tickets are trying to create a diversion from the state’s poor economy.
“Anyone reviewing this issue is chuckling, saying it’s like watching a schoolyard fight while there is a major war going on,” he said.
Note: Jeff Ramer and DTC chair declined to comment for this article.