'Why wouldn't you want to know?': Trumbull first selectman questions GOP opposition to new school financial audit

TRUMBULL — When auditor Joseph Centofanti presented the results of his operational review of the town’s schools last month he pointed out his findings were limited due to the lack of time and documentation.

“I did what I could, but there’s certainly a lot more going on,” he told a joint meeting of the board of finance and the town council’s Education Committee during his presentation of the report, which town officials called “shocking,” “disturbing,” and “an 80-page document of nightmares.”

The report detailed numerous questionable financial practices that contributed to what interim Superintendent Ralph Iassogna called a “dire” budget situation last year.

This week’s party-line vote to accept the report, which all five Republicans on the council opposed, and an ensuing discussion of whether a further investigation is needed, left Democrat First Selectman Vicki Tesoro wondering why examining financial mismanagement in the school system’s $100 million budget was a partisan issue.

“I am perplexed with our Republican colleagues on the town council,” Tesoro said after the meeting. “It makes no sense that they would vote against accepting this audit. This should never be a political issue.”

The decision whether to commission a more in-depth forensic audit rests with the council, but Tesoro said the operational review uncovered “real, significant issues with accounting practices, internal controls and oversight” in the school system.

“Why wouldn’t you want to know?” she asked rhetorically.

The answer, according to Minority Leader Carl Massaro, R-3rd District, has nothing to do with politics.

“This was supposed to be an audit, and turned out nothing like an audit,” Massaro said. “Nothing was verified, and a number of questions about the finding remain.”

For example, the report cited a number of purchases that were not sent out to bid. But state statutes allow bids to be waived under some circumstances, and the report does not specify whether any of those circumstances applied.

“You need to know, there wasn’t the level of verification, you need to know why the board did the things they did,” Massaro said.

Deputy Minority Leader Lori Rosasco-Schwartz, R-3rd, said vetting an audit with the people who made the decisions, which Centofanti did not do, was key to making sure an auditor had a clear understanding of the information.

“One of the first things they teach you as an auditor is to understand the facts completely before you report your findings,” she said.

And with their questions unanswered, Schwartz said, the GOP voted against accepting the report.

But why oppose commissioning a more in-depth report that could answer those questions? Priorities, Schwartz said.

“At this stage, we have a list of revenue issues that need to be addressed,” she said. “To go back and look at it all again, just doesn’t seem like the best use of our resources.”

Massaro agreed, saying re-examining the schools’ financial information should not be the priority since the administrative staff in place during the three-year period the report covered was gone, and the review had not uncovered evidence of any malfeasance.

However, Tesoro said she believes a further review would be money well spent, particularly since the school lunch program, a special revenue account that generates its own income, had gone from a $600,000 surplus to a $100,000 deficit from 2016 to 2019. Centofanti noted the funds had been spent in other areas, but he had not been able to determine where they had been allocated due to a lack of documentation.

“Where did those funds go?” Tesoro asked.

While Centofanti had said he did not find any malfeasance, Tesoro noted he had also reported that he never received some financial documents that he had requested, and other records he had examined had been incomplete or missing.

A forensic audit could provide the answers to some of the questions that the original review had raised, she said.

“Centofanti made it clear there was more there, more than he expected because that’s the risk you take when you bid a job — you don’t know what you’re going to find until you start opening the books,” Tesoro said. “It begs the question, what is it that our Republican friends don’t want the public to see or know about how the Board of Education was conducting its business?”

deng@trumbulltimes.com