This past week was proof that a lot can change in a year.
Residents learned that two former high-ranking officials in Seneca County were both indicted on numerous charges following a yearlong investigation, which culminated with an indictment being handed up by a grand jury.
Acting District Attorney Mark Sinkiewicz announced the indictment in a press release days after the Board of Supervisors suggested that an outcome could be on the horizon.
Former Seneca County Finance Director Brandi Deeds was indicted on numerous felony charges—including eight counts of falsifying business records, one count of grand larceny, and one count of defrauding the government.
Deeds entered a not-guilty plea in Seneca County Court before Judge Daniel Doyle and was released on her own recognizance.
Court documents show that Deeds is accused of falsifying various time records during her tenure as finance director - resulting in significant overpayment. Altogether, she was allegedly overpaid more than $2,000.
Former County Manager John Sheppard has been charged with official misconduct. The two appeared in court together, despite having separate cases.
Sheppard’s next court date was not specified, but the misdemeanor count of official misconduct will be answered in Waterloo Village Court. Meanwhile, Deeds will appear in court on Dec. 10.
“The action against the two former Seneca County employees is based on accountability for what they ‘did’ that was not proper and the job duties they failed to perform in a truthful, accurate or timely manner that may be ruled fraudulent,” said Board Chairman Robert Shipley (R-Waterloo). “The evidence will be considered by a Judge or Jury of their peers and we expect a verdict in this matter that will hold them accountable for their actions.”
In addition to the overpayment to Deeds, supervisors learned last week that total cost to the County and taxpayers could have exceeded $150,000. That for the audits by the Bonadio Group, which were necessary after Sheppard and Deeds left the County. More than a hundred errors in accounting were found in last year’s audit of 2017 books. When auditors with Bonadio reviewed 2018, and looked at the start of 2019 - significant improvement was seen.
Those auditors credited Halle Stevens, who now serves as Finance Director for Seneca County.
Supervisor Greg Lazzaro (R-Seneca Falls) called the entire set of circumstances ‘very sad’ for taxpayers.
“This whole incident is very sad and could have been averted if the Board of Supervisors had just slowed the process down,” explained Lazzaro. He noted four votes that were ultimately approved by the Board, which would have prevented Deeds from taking office.
It seems that for some supervisors - this issue began all the way back when the Board decided by majority vote that the treasurer’s job would be reduced to part-time status, in lieu of creating a unified finance department.
Deeds was ultimately hired as the County’s first finance director.
“There were four crucial votes leading up to the inception of the Finance Department,” Lazzaro added. “The whole process was fast-tracked, and employees who worked in finance within individual departments expressed concerns.”
Lazzaro says that departments lost long-term finance people who had institutional knowledge. These people had experience that was lost in the ultimate transition, according to the supervisor from Seneca Falls.
As for prosecution and the Board’s efforts now - Lazzaro says that the County should have terminated the employees involved when it had the chance. “It is really a shame that the County has to spend so much money on matters that could possibly could have been handled by terminations for cause,” he explained. “We seem to want more humiliation placed on the two people involved. We need to look to God when we find human frailties. We as a board made many mistakes during this period. Let’s move on and learn from our mistakes.”
Meanwhile, Supervisor Robert Hayssen (R-Varick) who was a vocal critic of both Sheppard and Deeds during their tenure in Seneca - said the process of creating a finance department, and dealing with individual challenges as they came up was difficult.
“My voting record speaks for itself,” Hayssen said regarding his opposition to a finance department. “Almost every vote was a lost cause. Sometimes I tossed my hands up in disbelief.”