by Angela Chagnon
This is the first article in a two part series.
Vermont is a laid-back, small-town sort of state where everybody knows everybody and many wonder if anything bad could really happen in their community. Unfortunately, a few towns have had to face the reality that bad things do happen, and often by the hands of those that they had trusted implicitly.
Recently, several towns have had to pay a price for their laissez-faire leadership. Several cases have been in the news recently:
· Kathy Lantagne, a longtime state employee with the Department of Children and Families, was recently sentenced to 33 months of prison for embezzling almost half a million dollars from the state.
· An employee with the Bethel/Royalton Solid Waste Facility is accused of stealing $173,000 from the publicly-owned company and then attempting to cover up the crime. The employee, Tonya Drury, is facing federal charges because the facility receives thousands of dollars in federal assistance each year
· Joyce Bellavanc, who worked for the Hardwick Electric Department, is facing 13 felony charges for embezzling more than a million dollars from her employer. While employed, she had been in charge of all the electric department’s financial records and accounts.
· Cemetery commissioners in the small town of Braintree “have awarded themselves the contracts to mow the grass in the town’s cemeteries, set the rates for the work and verify that it has been done”, according to John Briggs of the Burlington Free Press.
These cases, and others that are ongoing, suggest that Vermont suffers from an epidemic of flawed management that is costing residents and taxpayers a lot of money, not only from the crimes or unintentional consequences themselves, but the expensive court cases and investigations that usually follow.
In some instances, such as the Braintree cemetery case mentioned above, the intent is not malicious but simply “the way it’s always been done”. Small town leadership tends to be more trusting and laid-back than it should be. As a result, nobody notices when things start to slide until it becomes a major problem. This type of governance tends to culminate in battles that not only tear communities apart, but cost Vermonters time, money, and trust in their local government.
“Society has an accountability problem,” says Tom Salmon, Vermont’s State Auditor. “Government can’t fix it. It can only facilitate behavioral change.”
Salmon says that his office is currently dealing with several embezzlement cases along with other potential cases that he is unable to comment on. He revealed that embezzlement has cost the state about $3.5 million in the last ten years.
“We’re trying to help the communities catch somebody,” Salmon remarked. “We are concerned that it’s going on across the state in an imbalanced proportion because good people have been given too much trust and too much opportunity for too long.
“They’re ignoring conflict of interest policies, they’re ignoring policies and procedures,” he continued. “As we saw in a lot of cases, there is fiduciary duty being ignored.”
Salmon pointed out that the Vermont Professional Responsibility Board, which regulates the professional conduct of practicing attorneys, issues a checklist to Vermont attorneys that outlines their professional responsibilities regarding finances and requires them to sign a certification to show that they understand and accept responsibility for any illegal or unethical actions taken.
Salmon believes that this type of checklist and certification is a necessary preventive measure. “Nobody is taking responsibility for this,” he says of the embezzlement and fraud cases. “This [the checklist and certification] directly links somebody with the flow of cash.”
Along with the checklist should be internal controls to make sure that someone isn’t given an opportunity to steal without being caught.
“The other thing I want to point out is the fraud triangle,” Salmon added. “It has 3 sides that include opportunity, rationalization, and pressure.”
He says that pressure could be caused by financial difficulties or job stress. “We have some people who steal because they hate their boss. So they rationalize it, ‘this person is a jerk’. Most of the time they have the opportunity because no one is checking their work.”
Salmon’s office had recommended anti-fraud legislation to be passed by the legislature earlier this year, but the bill was not taken up by any committee.
“We were flabbergasted that the legislature didn’t pass our bill,” Salmon remarked.