FAIRFIELD – Tempers flared between First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick and members of the Board of Finance on Monday during a review of an internal investigation into employee credit card use.
According to Lori Charlton, a Democrat and the Board of Finance chair, the Audit Subcommittee meeting was convened to solicit answers from the administration regarding a recently-released internal investigation into town employee credit card spending that found no evidence of fraud.
But the question and answer session was interrupted numerous times by arguments between Kupchick, a Republican, and Democratic members of the finance board.
An investigation of credit card statements from 2018 to 2022 conducted by human resources Director Cathleen Simpson and Chief Financial Officer Jared Schmitt uncovered instances of town employees breaking credit card policies by paying sales tax, daily purchasing food, and shipping work-related items to their homes, but found no attempts to defraud the public.
The investigation found instead that the improper spending was due to loose town policies, and maintained that the findings of an earlier 2020 internal audit had not been shared with Kupchick, her chief of staff or her chief administrative officer Thomas Bremer. That audit suggested policies to improve credit card compliance.
At the meeting on Monday, however, Internal Auditor Connie Saxl insisted – contrary to the findings of the investigation – that she had reviewed the 2020 audit with Bremer.
When Charlton pointed out the discrepancy between the investigation findings and Saxl’s account, the meeting erupted into a shouting match.
Claims of political ‘potshots’
“She shared it with two individuals who report to Miss Kupchick,” Charlton said of the audit. “The proper protocol was followed in terms of communicating this. It just seems like …somebody didn’t think it was important enough to…”
“Enough,” Kupchick interrupted. “Nobody didn’t think it was important enough.”
Kupchick said the audit was “not top of mind” when it was released in early 2020 because she was dealing with the COVID pandemic and was in the midst of a townwide scandal involving numerous town employees.
As Kupchick, Charlton, and Democratic board member John Mitola shouted over one another, Kupchick began to question the motivations for convening the meeting.
“This is the Lori Charlton show, and it’s quite obvious,” Kupchick said. “And this is potshots at the Kupchick administration because I was supposed to know about a credit card investigation, I was supposed to know about all the problems that happened over the last 20 years in town government.”
“Well, you should’ve known about this,” Mitola responded.
Kupchick replied that after her election in 2021, at the time of the audit’s release, she was dealing with notices of violation from the state over the contaminated fill pile. She said she wants to work with the board to improve credit card use moving forward, but said the members do not understand how busy she was at the start of her tenure.
“You weren’t here, and you didn’t didn’t have to take over a town dealing with the crap I had to take over,” Kupchick shouted. “So you know what? I’m here to work with this committee to clean up this problem, and any other problem we found from the last 20 years. But I’m not going to sit here and have some political statements [about] how ‘Miss Kupchick should have done..’ and ‘Why didn’t she know?’ and ‘Why didn’t she do this?’”
Sitting in the audience of the subcommittee meeting, Selectwoman Nancy Lefkowitz, a Democrat, chimed in. “Screaming,” she said, would not help the town work through the issues. She pushed the officials to work on solutions.
Kupchick replied that she wanted to find solutions, but said the board did not want to hear them.
Ahead of the meeting, Kupchick’s administration shared a presentation with subcommittee members summarizing the investigation and outlining steps the town had taken to strengthen credit card policies. But board members instead asked that the administration save the presentation for another meeting to save time for the question and answer session.
Kupchick told board members her administration’s presentation would have taken less time than the statement Charlton read at the start of the meeting summarizing the events leading up to the investigation.
‘Offensive’ and ‘false’
At the start of the meeting, Charlton said she was “disturbed” by Kupchick’s Aug. 11 newsletter to residents. In the message, the first selectwoman wrote that investigators faced “undue political pressure from certain individuals” who criticized the timeline of the investigation.
According to the internal findings, the investigation was sparked by a complaint from Republican Dana Kery – a former Representative Town Meeting and Ethics Commission member – after she looked through the 2020 audit. While Simpson and Schmitt first estimated that the investigation would take one or two months in January 2023, it did not wrap until August. In the meantime, Charlton checked in with investigators on an end date, explaining that she wanted to keep her fellow finance board members informed.
At the Monday meeting, Charlton said she found Kupchick’s statements in the newsletter to be “offensive” and “false.”
“The implication that our concerns were political in nature is especially absurd given that the concerns were raised by members of our board from both political parties,” Charlton said. “So my hope is that this kind of defensive, self-serving rhetoric will be put aside this evening, and the tendency of the administration to treat legitimate questions from elected officials as political will end.”
As the meeting continued, board members asked Kupchick, Simpson and Schmitt about the investigation, but after some discussion, Charlton moved the conversation to what she said was the overarching problem – a lack of financial controls.
Charlton said the financial issues in town span far beyond credit card misuse, and held that employee training and new policies alone could not fix the problem. To fix the issues, she suggested expanding HR and finance staffing so that employees have more time to review town spending.
“I think there’s a role for HR, I think the bigger role in some of these is finance,” Charlton said. “And I think there needs to be an expanded role for internal audit.”
Without a review of the administration’s presentation or a conclusion to the question and answer session, the discussion ended as Kupchick said she needed to leave. She explained to attendees that she warned the board members that she would leave early before the start of the meeting.
Before she left, Kupchick agreed to sit down with the subcommittee members in a future meeting to continue the discussion, and the members agreed to review the administration’s presentation.