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County officials testify at Irene hearing

In this file photo dated Aug. 24, 2011, a Prattsville resident on crutches talks with a neighbor in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene.
October 8, 2019 05:09 pm

PRATTSVILLE — Two county officials testified at a recent grand jury hearing, two years after an FBI probe into the town’s recovery funds for Hurricane Irene.

Legislator Jim Thorington, R-Windham, a former Prattsville town councilman, and Karl Heck, director of Economic Development & Planning, were subpoenaed to testify Sept. 5 at the James T. Foley Courthouse in Albany, Greene County Attorney Ed Kaplan confirmed Tuesday.

The town board made a motion on Sept. 9 to hire attorney Tom Capezza for two days, according to meeting minutes. Capezza represented the town in 2017 during the FBI investigation.

Deputy Town Supervisor Bonnie Chase declined to comment on why the town hired Capezza and declined to answer if she had been called to testify.

“We hired an attorney to accompany the deputy supervisor and the bookkeeper because they were both subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in Albany,” Prattsville Councilman Greg Cross said.

Town bookkeeper Michelle Brainard declined to answer if she had been called to testify.

Town Clerk Kathleen Sherman said she did not testify. When asked why the town hired Capezza, she referred questions to Capezza’s office.

Capezza did not respond to requests for comment.

Town Supervisor Kristin Tompkins also did not respond to requests for comment.

Cross recalled the events of 2017.

“The FBI came to a board meeting to issue their subpoenas for records from the town,” he said. “It was the talk of the town the next morning.”

Chris Baker, president of the state Emergency Management Association said he has not been called to testify.

Baker assisted with Prattsville’s recovery for five days in 2011 and was interviewed by The Windham Journal in 2013.

“I have had no contact with them,” Baker said. “I was there to provide assistance and logistical support to get them set in a direction. That’s our job. And we get to a point where we pull out. We don’t have anything to do with funding.”

Chris Holmes, with the state Office of Emergency Management, was also interviewed in 2013.

Holmes no longer works with the agency and could not be reached for comment.

The county assisted Prattsville with its recovery efforts for the first two years after the storm, Heck said.

“We are program administrators,” he said. “We helped to administer programs. The county had a couple. We made sure funds were disbursed appropriately.”

When asked if there was any particular reason the county helped manage Prattsville’s recovery funding, Heck said no.

“We assisted them as we assisted other municipalities,” he said.

The controversy around the flood funding began when questions were raised in 2013 about former Town Supervisor Kory O’Hara hiring relatives and friends for flood relief positions.

Kory’s brother Kipp O’Hara and his friend Michael “BJ” Murray were hired as a debris monitors and paid $2,500 for the first two weeks after the storm, according to Daily Mail archives.

“I actually developed a spreadsheet to see what the cost of our town employees was, with benefits,” Chase said in the 2013 interview. “Each of the town’s employees was earning over $30 per hour including their benefits.

“We didn’t want to get into a situation of having to pay time-and-a-half if they were hired hourly. Since both Kipp and BJ worked close to 100 hours during the first two weeks, the decision to pay them a flat salary of $2,500 was made using the logic that it was close enough to $30 per hour.

“By the third week, we established a regular 50-hour work week which was the reason we lowered the weekly salary to $1,500. They were considered temporary positions with no options for benefits. As salaried employees, they were not eligible for overtime.

“Kipp was done before Thanksgiving. BJ stayed on longer but his position changed in the weeks following. We had restructured his pay from a weekly salary of $1,500 to an hourly rate of $20 per hour with no benefits, when the need for emergency services was no longer required.”

Kipp O’Hara received $13,700 for the period from the storm to the present while Murray, a one-time employee at O’Hara’s service station, received $35,440, according to town records.

“Everybody knew Kipp was my brother, but the way I looked at it was we had to do what we had to do,” Kory O’Hara said in the 2013 interview. “This wasn’t just some flood. We’ve had a lot of those in Prattsville. This was a monster.”

Kory’s cousin Thomas Briggs was hired to clean two grinder pumps in the town’s wastewater treatment system that were broken by Irene.

The job was put out to bid and Briggs submitted the low bid, which included the purchase of some sections of culvert pipe he had in stock, O’Hara said in 2013.

Kory O’Hara did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

An independent audit was performed on the financial statements of the town for the year ending Dec. 31, 2011, with its findings released in the fall of 2012, according to The Daily Mail.

The audit was necessary because Prattsville spent $500,000 in federal funds in one 12-month period, a mandate that applies to any municipality.

The auditor’s report noted that a complete accounting could not be undertaken since “substantially all of the town’s books of original well as substantially all corroborating evidence in support of the financial statements, were destroyed by Hurricane Irene and subsequent flooding which also destroyed the town’s headquarters.”

The audit further states: “We believe that our audit provides a reasonable basis for our opinion. In our opinion, the town of Prattsville, New York, complied, in all material respects, with the requirements referred to above that are applicable to each of its major federal programs.”

Vernon Churchill, a partner in the accounting firm that conducted the audit, said in a followup interview, “There are limitations in terms of what we can express an opinion upon. We do have a positive opinion on the federal money which we were able to fully access.”

A second audit was performed by the state Comptroller’s Office covering the period from Jan. 1, 2011, through June 29, 2012, and released in March 2013, according to the Daily Mail archives.

A spokesman for the Comptroller’s Office said examiners went to Prattsville for the second audit in response to allegations made by citizens that officials were knowingly mishandling flood funds.

The spokesman did not reveal the names of the individuals, but said all allegations are taken seriously and treated confidentially.