First Selectman George Temple wasn’t in office when the former tax collector was accused of embezzling more than $670,000 from the town. But he says he heard plenty of frustration about it during his campaign for the town’s top political seat.
“I went door-to-door and met many people who lived on fixed incomes who quite frankly couldn’t make it; it’s very difficult in this economy,” he said. “And they told me how upset they were about this. This one particular individual said, ‘How could we let somebody take money from the taxes that they work so hard to pay?’ And you know, that’s a hard question to answer.”
Town officials have been grappling with that same question for the past two years since allegations of the money-stealing scheme by 24-year elected official Karen Guillet, 61, first came to light and angered just about every taxpayer in town. Though Temple doesn’t have that answer, he said current and former town officials have worked hard to find a solution that assures it doesn’t happen again.
Standing side-by-side at a news conference at Oxford’s Town Hall on Wednesday just hours after , Temple and new Tax Collector Cayenne Spremullo, both Republicans, discussed those changes.
Spremullo explained that Temple has agreed to her request to order a new computer for the tax office that simplifies the tax collection process.
“So there is no reason for myself or the assistant tax collector to take money from the taxpayer, walk away from them and count it at our desk,” she said. “Any transaction will be processed immediately, right in front of them on the terminal.”
Temple said he’s appointed someone who currently works at Town Hall to help Finance Director Jim Hliva conduct an audit of the tax collections on a weekly basis. He said that will help to restore integrity to the tax collector’s office in Oxford.
“I’m not going to say that it could never happen again,” he said. “But we have taken steps to make sure that it will be a lot harder” to steal.
Oxford's tax office has also become more secure since, under the direction of Town Clerk Margaret West, the town used grant money this week to install surveillance cameras at the tax collector’s office as well as at the town clerk’s office – in the vault and at the front desk. And former interim Tax Collector Jackie Orner oversaw a plan for the tax office to accept credit card payments for the first time in an attempt to ensure the office will have to take fewer cash transactions.
It was cash transactions that helped Guillet carry on a scheme that former First Selectman Mary Ann Drayton-Rogers said lasted at least 10 years.
Investigators figured out that Guillet was taking in more cash than her records indicated and making up the difference by using checks from different accounts. The investigation by a bi-partisan group of local officials revealed at least six instances of this scam - hence the six counts of forgery Guillet is facing.
The scheme was fairly simplistic: for example, on Aug. 10, 2009, $9,255 in cash was taken into the tax collector's office, according to town records, and just $858 was deposited at the bank. Checks were then taken from different accounts to make up for the cash shortage, officials believe. Town officials believe similar money floating scams happened several times over a long period.
A Superior Court judge, who is overseeing a pending civil lawsuit Oxford has filed, described the defrauding process as a sort of Ponzi scheme.
Former official is relieved
Drayton-Rogers, who at one time was friends with Guillet, a fellow Democrat, expressed intense relief upon hearing the news on Wednesday. Drayton-Rogers said she was not invited to the news conference but attended anyway.
“I want to say how relieved I am that this has finally come to a conclusion,” she said.
She thanked police and the committee she appointed to investigate the claims, a group that included Hliva, the town finance director, former first selectman candidate and town administrative aide Joe Calabrese, and Board of Finance member Jack Kiley, who were aided by town attorney Fran Teodosio. Drayton-Rogers said the group provided state police major crimes squad investigators with all of the information they needed to make an arrest.
She also noted that although the investigation process took longer than she and many residents would have liked, it was shorter than it could have taken – state police said such investigations could take up to five years and this one took two. She believes that is because the town, through its search committee, was thorough in its investigation and forthcoming with information.
Drayton-Rogers said she hasn’t spoken to Guillet since the investigation first took place. In one of their last meetings, Drayton-Rogers asked Guillet about information that came to her about roughly $3,000 that wasn’t accounted for in the office. Drayton-Rogers asked several times where the money was until Guillet finally confessed to taking it. Guillet then said, “I’m glad it’s over,” Drayton-Rogers testified in court.
On that day in January of 2010, Guillet was put on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation. She resigned about five months later. Town officials will attempt to recoup money from her – $100,000 that the town bonded to buy insurance for the integrity of the tax collector position was returned to the town already under Drayton-Rogers’ tenure – but a Superior Court judge ruled the town cannot revoke her pension.
Judge Arthur A. Hiller said state and federal law prohibits the town from doing so.
The two accounts that the town attempted to take were 457(b) plans, the public sector equivalent of 401(k) accounts. Those two plans are worth $145,398 and $14,900, respectively, or $160,298 total. That amount would have been attached to the civil lawsuit on top of the town’s claim for treble damages, which means Oxford can get triple the amount of actual damages that town officials say they were able to prove was missing after they reviewed a sampling of tax payments between 2007-09 and cross referenced them with bank deposit slips. That amount was $233,322, which, when multiplied by three, equals $699,396.
Oxford said Guillet stole at least $670,000 via the scheme, which went back to at least 2000, Drayton-Rogers said, “if not earlier than that.”
“But there are statutes of limitation,” she said, adding that she doesn’t want to speculate on what Guillet spent the money on. “We were asked (by police) to look only into a certain number of years (about six) and that’s the information we provided to them.”
Although town officials may never know the full extent of the crimes, Drayton-Rogers is satified that the arrest “raises a cloud that has been over this town on this matter.”
“It really has been the most significant situation that the town has faced in many, many years,” she said. “So, for all of us, as I said, it’s a huge, huge relief.
“You can’t help but feel bad for the individual involved,” she said. “But we’ve known based on information provided that this has been long in coming…. Now it’s going to be up to the courts to see that justice is served for all of the residents in this town.”
‘The day Oxford will gain justice’
Temple said he believes the cost of what was stolen has already been passed on to the taxpayers, whom he believes were overtaxed in one way or another over several political administrations.
Still, he said there is money out there that can be recouped and that money will be put to good use if Oxford obtains it.
When asked by a TV reporter whether there was any advice he would pass on to other towns to make sure this sort of crime doesn’t happen, Temple said all municipal officials have to be aware of and be cautious of complacency and “taking things for granted; believing in personalities rather than a system of accountability.”
“I think that is where Oxford went wrong,” he said. “We’re kind of a rural community and there is a lot of trust, there is a lot of neighborliness. That’s one of the beautiful things about our town. But as much as I certainly trust Cayanne (Spremullo), I’m going to verify that she is doing the right thing.”
Temple said the town will look to regain the trust of taxpayers - like a woman he met on the campaign trail. It was a young mom who was irate over the tax collector situation.
“She believed that this should be brought to justice,” he said. “And today is the day that Oxford will gain justice.”