The arrest of a West Haven legislator this week on charges he embezzled COVID relief funding was evidence that oversight of the federal dollars were working to curb corruption, the director of a municipal lobby group said Thursday.
FBI agents arrested Democratic state Rep. Michael DiMassa on charges that he billed the city of West Haven, where he works as an administrative assistant, for more than $630,000 in federal funding for consulting work his company Compass Investment Group did not complete. According to prosecutors, DiMassa later spent more than $50,000 on casino chips at Mohegan Sun.
The incident resulted in Democratic leaders stripping DiMassa of committee and leadership assignments and Republican leaders calling for more scrutiny of municipal expenditures of the federal relief funds. In a letter to Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget secretary, Melissa McCaw, Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly and Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, called for an audit in each town to ensure the money was being used as intended.
“Connecticut must build back the people’s trust and guarantee that wrongdoings will never go unnoticed and will not be tolerated in any capacity,” Kelly and Formica wrote. “As the overseer of these funds, [the Office of Policy and Management] has an immediate responsibility to protect every person who the funds are intended to support.”
In an interview Thursday, Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said municipalities would comply with the proposed state audits without complaint. But he said towns are already conforming with potential audits, reporting requirements and spending restrictions tied to the federal relief funding.
“There are great protections that are in place and there’s even the potential for federal audits on the use of these funds later. So to me, if others are trying to go down this road, they can be pretty well assured that they won’t get away with it in the long run and I don’t believe this is happening on any widespread basis at all,” DeLong said.
Generally, DeLong said he has found that most town governments err perhaps too far on the side of caution when it comes to spending the COVID relief funds.
“It’s been municipalities operating with more caution than perhaps they even need and a level of fear. ‘What if I get it wrong?’ I hope this incident doesn’t make some of them even more hesitant to pull the trigger on certain expenditures,” he said.
In a statement McCaw, secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, said her agency had previously required all towns to report their spending to the state by Friday.
“Once we have had an opportunity to review and take part in audits and investigations where necessary, we will take all appropriate steps to remedy fraud, illegal acts, violations or abuse reported and address any internal control weaknesses in order to fulfill our fiduciary responsibility,” McCaw said.
In an interview Thursday, Kelly said he believed the legislature should hear from state budget officials to review how towns have spent the federal money.
“It happened in West Haven and we know that,” Kelly said. “There was an FBI investigation of alleged wrongdoing. I certainly hope it didn’t happen in any other town but we need right now, because the public trust has been shattered, we need to make sure it never happens again.”
DeLong said he believed the West Haven incident to be an exception. Most towns had appropriately used their funds and most town workers were trustworthy, he said.
“Our overwhelming majority of town workers are just everyday local public servants who want to do their job, do it correctly to support their communities, support their families and go home,” DeLong said. “They’re not interested in getting tied up in anything like this.”
DiMassa was released Wednesday on a $250,000 bond. The wire fraud charge he’s facing carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. According to the New Haven Register, DiMassa plans to resign his West Haven job as of Oct. 25.