The township’s Water and Sewer Department is at the center of an intensifying state criminal investigation into whether some of its employees used their positions for personal gain.
Investigators with the Public Corruption Unit of the state attorney general’s office have served two subpoenas on the township seeking information regarding the Water and Sewer Department. The subpoenas were served Friday, Sept. 21, one day after Mayor Raymond Chintall publicly announced the existence of the investigation at a township committee meeting.
The exact information investigators sought through the subpoenas is unknown. The township refused to provide West Deptford Patch with copies of the documents, which the media outlet sought through the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
In denying Patch’s request, Acting Township Clerk Amy Leso wrote that the release of the subpoenas “would be inimical to the public interest.” However, Leso offered no explanation as to how the public could possibly be harmed by the release of the subpoenas.
Township Solicitor Anthony Ogozalek Jr. said that during multiple conference calls over the past week, representatives from the attorney general’s office pressured him into withholding the subpoenas. The representatives argued that making the documents public could jeopardize the investigation, according to Ogozalek.
“They convinced me it could affect the investigation,” which was requested by township officials, Ogozalek said Wednesday.
Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for state Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa, wrote in an email Wednesday afternoon: “Our policy is that we do not confirm or deny investigations. We have not confirmed any investigation in West Deptford. I cannot comment or provide any information concerning your questions.”
Ogozalek said he intends to seek a written opinion from the state Government Records Council (GRC) as to whether the subpoenas should be considered public documents. The GRC handles disputes involving public-records requests.
Audit uncovers serious problems
The criminal investigation follows a township audit released in June that portrayed the Water and Sewer Department as being in disarray, with little oversight and employees possibly engaging in quid pro quo with customers, and even each other.
In a qualifying letter dated July 19, auditor Michael Holt of the accounting firm Holman & Frenia in Medford cited numerous discrepancies in the Water and Sewer department’s operations, including inconsistent or nonexistent record keeping. The letter noted that the township does not have a local ordinance addressing when a customer’s water and sewer service should be discontinued for lack of meter readings, and employees only rely on a department policy that states service should be turned off after three consecutive missed readings.
(To view a copy of the letter, click on the PDF above.)
The letter also cites numerous instances of “suspicious activity” involving meter readings. The auditors examined records from 2008 to 2012 and found that very few customers had their water shut off, despite multiple missed meter readings.
“Our initial examination determined that significantly more customers should have had their service shut off during this time period,” Holt’s letter states.
West Deptford Patch obtained the letter through an OPRA request submitted to the township.
The audit found other serious problems in the Water and Sewer Department, including commercial accounts carrying large balances from month to month, and no inventory of parts and supplies.
In addition the audit found that unnamed employees allowed commercial accounts to carry large balances in exchange for “personal benefit,” including free car washes and meals at restaurants.
The audit found that there were “water/sewer employees who allowed customers, including other employees, to go (without) getting shut off in exchange for personal benefit. The audit does not specify what that personal benefit was.
“We were told that there were at least three Department employees who should have had their water service shut off, but it wasn’t,” the letter notes.
In other instances, Water and Sewer Department employees apparently “submitted their own readings that were intentionally misreported to result in a lower bill.”
“At the very least,” Holt wrote, “we have employees who are not performing their duties by honoring their fiduciary responsibilities.”
Don't miss a bit of West Deptford news. Sign up for West Deptford Patch's free daily newsletter and breaking news alerts.