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Norwalk Democrats, Mayor Spar Over NEON, Shortfall

Updated, 10:31 p.m.

NORWALK, Conn. – Mayor Richard Moccia found himself under fire at Tuesday night's Common Council meeting, as two Norwalk Democrats sought answers to questions asked repeatedly by members of the public.

Warren Peña (D-At-Large) and David Watts (D-District A) repeatedly asked why the current situation with the Board of Education is different from that of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now five months ago and pressed for a forensic audit.

"We had a scandal a little while ago with a 10th of the $4 million, with NEON," Peña said. "A $4 million misappropriation or mismanagement ... at that particular point, our leadership of our city aggressively called for a forensic audit, aggressively demanded that heads roll , that somebody be held accountable, and somebody needed to be fired. So my question is why, when we set that standard, but for $4 million – 10 times more – we don't hear any of those comments."

"There was a lot of media attention around NEON," Watts said. "I saw the press conference and they demanded that heads should roll for $400,000. So now we have $4 million and nobody wants to do anything."

Peña asked why the city could rearrange its loan to the Oak Hill Golf Authority and not the entire amount owed by the Board of Education. "I would understand if the city had no money," he said. "But there is money. There is money in the Rainy Day Fund. There is money in each department that may have slush funds and everybody knows that, everybody knows it, everybody knows that. Our leader knows that."

Below is a transcript of Moccia's replies:

To Peña:

"The NEON situation is entirely different. It was not just $400,000 – $8,000 in credit card charges, illegal hires, mismanagement of money, illegal loans. It wasn't because of $400,000 that the DSS (Department of Social Services) came in and took over NEON. It wasn't just me standing there, it was the state of Connecticut, and the entire state delegation. To try and compare what happened in the Board of Ed with NEON is ludicrous, no comparison. Whatever happened on the Board of Ed was a financial mistake, not on the verge of corruption. No comparison.

"Secondly, Mr. Peña, if you know there are slush funds in this city, and you say everyone knows it, then you're implying that the financial director and all our department heads are hiding money in a slush fund? The word slush fund implies an illegal contribution, illegal monies. We may not be a perfect city but I don't believe any of our departments have slush funds. That's objectionable to every other department head. We hear people out here that want to be respected as teachers, administrators. I think if you're working for the DPW, the library, the police, the fire, you would not want to be accused of having slush funds. There are no slush funds. All you have to do is come to the Board of Estimate meeting every month and you will see the transfers of excess funds that don't include the accounts. We're transferring to next year's budget to handle the budgets.

"Let's stay with the Board of Ed. Nobody is denying there were mistakes made but it's not comparable to NEON. The state didn't come in and do an investigation. The federal government hasn't been down here.

(Audience members: "They should.")

"Well, I know. Well again, we want to forget the past and move forward (two or three inaudible words) and you still want to point fingers back. That's fine. Who wants to speak next?"

To Watts, who pointed out that Moccia is an ex-officio member of the Board of Education:

"I've got to give a lot of charter lessons tonight. As ex-officio member of the board I can only vote in the case of a tie. I have no control over finances ... like people on the NEON board. But I understand as mayor, in the city here, you have to take responsibility for the city and I accept that. But at the same token, when people are given misinformation, I have the right to correct that. I do not run the Board of Education any more than I run the Board of Estimate, any more than I run this council. They vote. The Board of Estimate votes, the Board of Education votes. Again, we get back to NEON. As I said, the state of Connecticut came in and took over NEON. There must have been something there. They haven't done that with the Board of Ed. You might say, pretty bad bookkeeping. For instance, you know and I think most attorneys up here, too, would say that a forensic audit involves criminal activity for the most part.

"So I think that's the issue, you might always not agree with that. I think independent audit is a better word than forensic audit, because we almost get the CSI. I have no problem with an independent audit and I think Mr. Longo is doing a timeline. I understand perhaps at the finance committee meeting on Thursday that some estimation will be given to try and detail where the problems occurred. But ladies and gentlemen, it's done. How do we move forward? Before we came ... you can talk about the rainy day, you can use all clichés. My answer is to continue to work, see what the Board of Ed can do, the Board of Estimate can do, how we can all work together.

"Yes, this is a feel good resolution. Many people were told that it was binding, when they were coming here, which is misinformation. We could get into oh, this, and oh, that. We were told that we wanted bi-partisanship up here, and everything had to be nonpolitical, and you saw a couple of them, and I'm used to it. ... you have to have a thick skin, I was basically, you know, criticized. That's fine. But let's move beyond that. Let's get away from all the old names. I'll take responsibility. Let's have debate and amendments of how we can solve this problem. We are not going to drive the bus of Norwalk looking in the rear view mirror. ...

"Right now we have 'til June 30 to figure out how to save jobs and what we can do. I have said this at every public meeting. I do not blame the teachers, I do not blame administrators. I do not blame a single person who walked in to a building, who was in one of the unions, day in or day out. What I said is, no matter whose fault it was we are in a crisis situation. When you have a crisis situation, you have to adapt and change and sacrifice. All I said to the unions from Day 1, take a freeze for one year, let's work on it. If we can talk about having the Board of Estimate, I would prefer not to have a loan for the Board of Education to pay back. I would like to figure out how they can keep the damned money. But that's what we have to talk about. So let's move on."

The state of Connecticut did not come in to take over NEON until its board of directors pressured its president, Joe Mann, to resign, which was confirmed by state Sen. Bob Duff.

Correction made, June 17

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